Across the globe in nearly all major western cities people are gleefully wearing green and parading in a celebration of their Irishness. Drinking, dancing, dressing up, what’s not to love… Though, where I’m currently at, the 17th of March always brings a very contrived atmosphere with it. A quick look at the BBC News website will immediately give it away, as at the very top right next to a piece about the parade in Belfast, you’d find two articles about security alerts (read as bomb threats) in north and south parts of the city. That shows that despite our best wishes there are still people out there, who would like the past conflict to rear its ugly head again.
Well, it’s no surprise that the Irish Troubles and the IRA form a bottomless pit of film material, though it’s all too easy to warp it into a laughable cliché you’d see in films like “Patriot Games”, “The Devil’s Own”, “The Jackal”, or even recently in “Non-Stop”, where it didn’t take too long to draw a parallel between Neeson’s Belfast-born character and the IRA. I know there are countless documentaries out there that are worth checking out and I might at some point compile a list of them, but if you’d like to have a look at the Northern Irish conflict through the lens of a feature film, here is a list of seven titles I believe you should start with:
1. “Shadow Dancer” – a completely fictional suspenseful tale, yet grounded in a gritty reality. Directed by the award-winning documentarian James Marsh (known for films like “Man on wire” and “Project Nim”) this film about informants, paramilitaries, revenge and violence in the 90’s Belfast setting. It might not be ground-breaking in its pulpy paperback story-telling, but the grim atmosphere of the film is enough to convey the sense of what used to be reality in these parts of the world. Also, seeing Clive Owen on the screen is almost always a plus.
2. “Fifty Dead Men Walking” – Jim Sturgess and Sir Ben Kingsley in a story with very real roots about a young man from Belfast who becomes an informant for the MI5. Risking his own life, as well as the safety of his own family, Martin McGartland helped in bringing down many IRA operatives. Although the film on its own is pretty forgettable and average, there is something to be said about the reality of those times especially that apart from being obviously elevated for dramatic purposes here or there, it is mostly true.
3. “Five Minutes of Heaven” – Starring Liam Neeson and James Nesbitt under the direction of Oliver Hirschbiegel, this film is nothing more than recollections and conversations, but nevertheless makes for a very interesting film about justice, forgiveness and retribution. In short, it is a story of a man who is about to shake hands with somebody responsible for his brother’s death. “Five minutes of heaven” is quite relevant, especially in light of the enormous effort in bridging the gap between the catholic and protestant communities in Northern Ireland that has been made over the years.
4. “Good Vibrations” – this film doesn’t really explore the political climate of Northern Ireland during The Troubles, but rather shows life in Belfast in spite of the conflict. Starring Richard Dormer, “Good Vibrations” shows the early days of the Belfast underground punk-rock scene, which was among other things a manifestation of the young people’s defiance against the violence and segregation.
5. “In the name of the father” – at this point in time, if you haven’t seen this film, then you’d better rectify that scathing inadequacy at your earliest convenience. Nominated for seven Academy Awards (with no luck, though) and starring Daniel Day-Lewis, “In the name of the father” tells a true story of Gerry Conlon – a man tortured into confessing to an IRA bombing, who then spent a good chunk of his life wrongfully accused. This film deserves to be seen both for its subject matter and the film-making artistry that includes some stunning performances.
6. “Bloody Sunday” – Paul Greengrass’ frantic account of one of the most shameful days in modern British history – the massacre of a peaceful protest in Derry that was henceforth referred to as The Bloody Sunday. Thanks to his quasi-documentarian film-making flourishes, this film feels gritty and real to the point of being unbearably uncomfortable. Though, it is a film everybody should watch and learn about these despicable times.
7. “Hunger” – Steve McQueen’s directorial debut about an IRA-man Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) who starved himself to death in protest against the authorities that refused to acknowledge IRA convicts as political prisoners. This is most definitely a harrowing film that is difficult to watch on every possible level. McQueen’s direction shows the brutal reality of Northern Irish prison in the most unnerving way. Interestingly, “Hunger” and his last picture “12 Years a Slave” share the common language and stylistic choices in depicting violence, with long stoic shots of naked people being ruthlessly battered as the most prominent example. Additionally, this film is a stunning display of Fassbender’s talent, who underwent a drastic physical transformation for the role and gave an earnest and moving performance, which put him up there with the best actors of his generation… and sadly went mostly unnoticed.