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Reviews

Rebel Heart
(2001)

Ronan Bennett penned drama on the Irish War of Independence
Ronan Bennett's four part television drama for the BBC and RTE was already controversial before it reached British and Irish television screens. Ulster Unionist leader and leader of the Northern Ireland power sharing government, David Trimble berated the BBC for making the drama at a sensitive time in the far from steady peace process. He claimed the series would be used as a propaganda for modern day Irish republicans, he attacked Bennett's own political convictions and a number of alterations made to actual historical events in the series.

But setting aside the argument over whether it was wise for David Trimble to attack the series before it was even screened, it has to be said 'Rebel Heart' is a bit of a disappointment. Unusually for Bennett (who penned the Robert Carlyle gangster flic FACE and the excellent pre-IRA ceasefire Maze Prison drama, LOVE LIES BLEEDING) it is an uneven work, painted in broad brush strokes.

Compressing six years of Irish history into four episodes, the drama tells the story of Ernie Coyne (James D'Arcy), a young idealistic middle class Dubliner drawn into the 1916 Easter Rising. During the Rising, he falls for a Belfast republican volunteer Ita Feeney (Paloma Baeza) and falls in with working class Dubliners, Kelly (Frank Laverty) and Tom O'Toole (Vincent Regan). His subsequent imprisonment after the Easter Rising and the disapproval of his family does not deter him from joining Michael Collins' bloody guerilla war against the British. His involvement in the IRA takes him to Belfast and Cork but is also intertwined with his romance with Ita. Along the way, he rubs shoulders with real life Irish historical figures like Collins (Brendan Coyle), Eamon de Valera (Andrew Connolly), Padraig Pearse (Frank MacCusker) and James Connolly (Bill Patterson).

So what's the problem? REBEL HEART starts off like Ken Loach's amazing Spanish Civil War drama LAND AND FREEDOM but never really sustains the momentum. One can't help feeling that four episodes are not really sufficient to do this kind of story justice and Bennett should really have been given two more episodes to flesh out his characters, storyline and properly examine a seminal moment in Irish history. The series is beautifully shot and the acting is committed. Special praise should go to Vincent Regan, Frank Laverty and Frank MacCusker. There is also an all too brief cameo from Liam Cunningham who continues to impress on the small or big screen. James D'Arcy is a suitably stiff lead and Paloma Baeza's feisty west Belfast republican (complete with accent) is spot on.

To Bennett's credit, this no dewy eyed, one sided hymn to Irish republicanism. The 1916 Rising is anything but glorious and there is a brutality to not just the Ulster police's massacres but also to Ernie's violence. REBEL HEART is not without its merits. It's just a pity that with a little bit more time it could have been so, so much better.

In Dreams
(1999)

A true original
So what are we to make of Neil Jordan's 'In Dreams' and the wide and varied responses to it?

The film bombed just about everywhere in the world and yet looking through the user's comments on this website there are those who passionately adore it and those who passionately detest it.

I fall into the first camp.

For a start, it's a psychological horror movie that is genuinely scary and emotionally draining in a way that few films are these days.

Okay, the plot stretches belief but then again, I give you almost every mainstream horror movie made.

Compare it with the Sixth Sense which is equally far fetched but much less demanding.

You will see Jordan has turned out a much darker, more disturbing, more meaningful and more interesting multi-layered film.

Also, it has the advantage of not having Bruce Willis in it, turning in the sort of wooden performance he trotted out in The Sixth Sense.

In Dreams just stretches its audience.

Jordan and fellow scriptwriter, Bruce Robinson cleverly play with their audience's perceptions of their main character.

Is Claire genuinely going through these horrific experiences or is she going mad?

There is also a terrible cruel streak running through the film - especially in its treatment of its heroine and her family - which is so unusual and refreshing for a Hollywood film (perhaps this is the main reason why audiences and critics were so alienated by it, they're just not used to it).

Visually, Jordan's movie is sumptuous - the rich reds and greens, the autumnal colours, the ghostly underwater sequences.

And there are also the performances.

Bening, in probably her most neurotic role ever, is as compelling as always.

Aidan Quinn is suitably solid in the role of her troubled, if flawed husband.

Stephen Rea turns in another subtle performance as the psychiatrist. Paul Guilfoyle is also effective as the cop.

And then, there's Robert Downey Junior - so over the top you're waiting for him to crash land with one hell of a thump.

But then again, OTT is nothing new to this genre. I give you Jack Nicholson in The Shining, Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs, Anthony Perkins in Psycho!

In Dreams is a multilayered film, attacking you visually, mentally and emotionally on a number of levels.

First, there is the nature of dreams and reality, madness and sanity, fairytales and fact.

Secondly, you can read it as a love letter to Hitchcock. There is so much Hitchcock in this film - Rebecca, Psycho, The Birds, Marnie, Notorious, Suspicion (they're all alluded to here and many, many more of the Great Master's movies).

Thirdly, there's many recurrent themes and imagery from Jordan's own work in here.

We have the psychologically disturbed boy from The Butcher Boy, cross dressing, gender bending in The Crying Game, holding captives in a gothic forest from the same film, even the famous run through the forest, the leap from a dam in We're No Angels, the tortured monster a la Interview with the Vampire.

Fourthly, there's the apples, those damned red apples that keep troubling everyone. Shades of Adam and Eve? Fairytales like Snow White?

In Dreams may not be Jordan's finest work but there is plenty in here to enjoy and to discover on repeated viewings.

The movie is uncomfortable viewing at times but gloriously over the top.

Time will tell how 'In Dreams' will be viewed in the context of Jordan's overall work and whether it will be a cult movie.

I think the biggest surprise of all is that it got through the Hollywood studio system. Full marks to Dreamworks for doing so.

The General
(1998)

Another accomplished performance by Brendan Gleeson, Ireland's Depardieu
John Boorman's 'The General' was always going to be a controversial movie and a tough sell for its filmmakers.

It's anti-hero, Martin Cahill was Ireland's most infamous criminal of recent times - so much so that there has been four screen depictions of him (Ken Stott in The Vicious Circle, Kevin Spacey in Ordinary Decent Criminal, Pete Postlethwaite in When The Sky Falls and Brendan Gleeson in The General).

He was guilty of some of the country's most outrageous crimes and capable of real brutality - most notably, injuring a forensic scientist in a car bomb and literally nailing one of his gang members to the floor.

Add into the mix the fact that the film has a largely Irish cast deploying thick Dublin accents and that Boorman chose to shoot it in black and white and you have a movie which wasn't exactly going to jump out at international and especially, US audiences demanding to be loved.

The result is perhaps Boorman's finest work, certainly on a par with the wonderful 'Hope and Glory'.

The film is also by a furlong the best of the four movies depicting Cahill's life.

This is in large part due to the brilliant performance of Irish actor, Brendan Gleeson in the central role.

The Irish Depardieu not only physically transforms himself into Cahill but captures the rebellious spirit, the intelligence and the charm.

It would have been easy to depict Cahill as a monster.

However, Gleeson and Boorman treat their audience with respect, building up a character with shades of darkness and light.

On one hand, viewers are given an appreciation of how "The General" was able to command the love of two sisters, his children and the adulation of his criminal associates.

However, Boorman's film is certainly no love letter to Cahill. We also see his sadistic side as in the bombing of the forensic scientist's car and crucifixion of one of his gang members, his lack of consideration and compassion for the 100 workers laid off at a storeroom he has robbed, his cold bargaining with the sexually abused daughter of one of his gang members.

The supporting cast also put in fine performances too.

Jon Voight not only masters the rural Irish brogue of the Garda (police) inspector bedevilled by Cahill but also the attitudes. It is a tough but ultimately sympathetic performance of a cop dragged unwillingly into the gutter.

Maria Doyle Kennedy and Angeline Ball give charming performances as the sisters who were also the women in Cahill's rather unorthodox life, with Ciaran Fitzgerald also making a sympathetic son.

Adrian Dunbar, Sean McGinley and Eanna MacLiam all put in spirited performances as members of Cahill's gang. McGinley, in particular, creates another memorably seedy performance as Gary.

Special mention should also go to Pat Laffan as a brutish Garda sergeant.

With it's cracking script, Richie Buckley's musical score and the black and white camerawork, 'The General' is easily up there with the best of modern movies made in Ireland (certainly, up there with Neil Jordan's 'The Butcher Boy' and Alan Parker's 'The Commitments').

It is a must see - a film which demands cult status.

Screenplay: Love Lies Bleeding/L'Inconnue de Belfast
(1993)
Episode 1, Season 8

Intelligent IRA ceasefire drama which puts other Irish Troubles films to shame
'Love Lies Bleeding' is an early work from British director Michael Winterbottom for the BBC in what has been an impressive cannon of work for film and television.

Winterbottom made a name for himself in British television, directing episodes of Jimmy McGovern's psychological crime series 'Cracker' and Roddy Doyle's brilliant dysfunctional Dublin housing estate drama 'Family'.

'Love Lies Bleeding,' which aired in Britain as the IRA was about to declare its 1994 ceasefire, authentically recreates the internal tensions and small world inhabited by Irish republicans in Belfast.

Conn, a former IRA hunger striker who has served 12 years in the high security Maze Jail, is given weekend parole as peace talks take place between the Irish Republican leadership and the British government.

But instead of enjoying his brief taste of freedom in a much changed Belfast, he is hellbent on vengeance for the murder of his girlfriend, Layla.

The film follows Conn as he tries to piece together the events which led to Layla's death in a Protestant loyalist area of Belfast.

However, Winterbottom drags Conn and his audience into a cloak and dagger world of Northern Irish para-militarism where not everything is as straightforward as it seems.

Belfast novelist Ronan Bennett delivers a tightly written, confident and uncompromising thriller.

Bennett is extremely comfortable writing about his native city - deploying Belfast black humour to wicked effect and mimicking accurately the language of the Irish republican "family".

He also strives to be fair in his depiction of loyalist para-militaries, showing there are bad apples on either side.

English Shakespearean actor, Mark Rylance gives an assured performance in the anchor role of Conn, making him a tortured, emotionally blunted fringe player in the Troubles.

But the film also boasts an exceptional performance by Brendan Gleeson as Thomas - the republican leader destined for greater things.

Watch out also for strong supporting performances from George Shane as Conn's da Gerry, James Nesbitt as Niall, John Kavanagh as the drunk Sean Kerrigan, Robert Patterson as Artie Flynn and Tony Doyle as loyalist prisoner, Geordie Wilson.

Winterbottom's film is all the better for its use of real Belfast locations - capturing the damp, smoky feel of the city in early winter and the watery morning sunlight.

The director's experimentation with the language of cinema and different film stock in 'Wonderland' can also be seen in this picture.

'Love Lies Bleeding' puts other celluloid depictions of the Northern Irish Troubles in the shade. A measure of its class is in the scene where Conn comes face to face in a loyalist club with Lily, the widow of a man killed by his comrades in the IRA.

At the time it was screened, it was by far the best Northern Ireland drama since Neil Jordan's 'Angel'. High recommendation indeed. This deserves a video and DVD release.

The Investigation: Inside a Terrorist Bombing
(1990)

A compelling drama about a shocking miscarriage of justice
While international audiences would be familiar with the case of the Guildford Four thanks to Jim Sheridan's In the Name of the Father, the case of the Birmingham Six drew as much attention in Britain and Ireland throughout the 1980s and 90s.

On the night of November 21, 1974, five Irish immigrants with families in Birmingham, England - four from Belfast, one from Derry - were arrested as they prepared to return to Northern Ireland.

The five men were heading back to Belfast for the funeral of an IRA man, James McDaid killed by his own bomb in the West Midlands city of Coventry.

As they made their way to Lancashire to catch the ferry back to Belfast, the IRA set off two bombs in two pubs, the Mulberry Bush and the Tavern killing 21 people and injuring more than 160 in Birmingham city centre. Many of the dead and injured were Irish.

A sixth man was later arrested and confessions were extracted from some of them by infamous West Midlands Crime Squad following their arrests.

There was widespread revulsion at the attack and the men received heavy sentences despite withdrawing their confessions and claiming police brutality at their trial.

However, following a campaign by the men's families, investigative journalists, Catholic church leaders, politicians and human rights activists, people began to believe the six - Richard McIlkenny, Paddy Joe Hill, Johnny Walker, Gerry Hunter, Billy Power and Hughie Callaghan - were innocent.

Questions were raised about the tactics deployed by the West Midlands investigators to extract confessions out of the men, with allegations of police brutality and dubious forensic test results.

The case also had reverberations for the British legal system after an unsuccessful appeal and allegations that the judiciary, as in the case of the Guildford Four, did not want to admit to a miscarriage of justice.

'Who Bombed Birmingham?,' as this film was known in Britain, was screened a year before the eventual quashing of the convictions of the Six.

The docudrama was made by Granada Television in England and based around the company's (now sadly departed) current affairs programme 'World In Action''s efforts to uncover the truth of what happened.

It takes as its basis the book by British Labour MP, Chris Mullin (played with tremendous commitment by John Hurt) and follows his dogged attempts to trace the real bombers.

However, it also uses flashbacks and follows the current affairs team's attempts to prove the men's innocence by querying the reliability of the forensic evidence.

The film also provides one of the most realistic screen depictions of what it is like to work on an investigative reporting programme, as the team interviews people and tries to disprove the tests.

The result is a powerful television movie which really set the standard for subsequent British TV docudramas based on real events like Peter Kozminsky's 'Shoot to Kill' and Jimmy McGovern's 'Hillsborough'.

The three leads, Hurt, Roger Allam as 'World In Action' journalist Charles Tremayne and Martin Shaw as his producer Ian McBride give spirited performances at the core of the film.

But the film is marked by distinguished performances from an accomplished British and Irish cast.

The six - played by Ciaran Hinds, Niall Tobin, Brendan Laird, Niall O'Brien, Vincent Murphy and Brendan Cauldwell - all give heartbreaking performances and there is also some splendid comic interplay between them.

Bob Peck, Terence Rigby and John Woodvine provide fascinating portrayals of different faces of the law.

But where the film really chills is in its depiction of the real life bombers - most notably, John Kavanagh's depiction of the IRA gang's bombmaker, Donal McCann's resentful republican and Sean McGinley's tortured terrorist.

One sequence which merits special mention is the scene where Hurt's Mullin confronts McGinley's tortured soul and hears his account of what happened.

This is an intelligent movie which is every bit as well made and powerful as In the Name of the Father.

It is all the more important because it also contributed to the release of the six men - revealing on prime time television the names of the real life bombers as well as new evidence that the police knew all along the identities of the men who carried out the attack.

Put simply, 'Who Bombed Birmingham' is a British television classic.

Ordinary Decent Criminal
(2000)

Pulp Fictionised account of life of Dublin gangster, Martin Cahilll
Coming on the back of two other films based on real-life Dublin criminal, Martin Cahill, Thaddeus O'Sullivan's 'Ordinary Decent Criminal' is slickly made, glossy but ultimately soulless.

As Michael Lynch, Kevin Spacey steps into Cahill's shoes previously occupied so effectively by Irish actor, Brendan Gleeson in John Boorman's 'The General' and so disappointingly by Scotland's Ken Stott in 'Vicious Circle'.

The results in this movie are mixed. Spacey has the right sense of mischief to carry off a role like this. His accent is wobbly though - taking in almost every Irish county, North and South.

He just about gets away with it because Spacey brings a lot of baggage with him from his previous film roles enabling the mischievous screen persona he has so carefully crafted over the years to carry a movie as mediocre as this.

The impressive line-up of actors in his supporting cast disappoint, though.

Peter Mullan and David Hayman (who were both so, so good in Ken Loach's 'My Name Is Joe') are totally wasted as Michael Lynch's henchmen. Compare this to Adrian Dunbar and Sean McGinley's performances as similar characters in 'The General'.

Linda Fiorentino is reduced to a dull supporting role as one of Lynch's common law wives. Helen Baxendale makes virtually no impression as the other woman in his life.

By way of contrast, Maria Doyle Kennedy and Angeline Ball are far more impressive in the corresponding roles in 'The General'.

'Welcome to Sarajevo's' Stephen Dillane and 'The Singing Detective's' Patrick Malahide are stock keystone cops, forming part of the bumbling Garda team who try to jail Lynch.

Even accomplished Irish actor, Gerry McSorley (chilling in Jim Sheridan's 'The Boxer' and in 'In the Name of the Father') is just wasted.

Thaddeus O'Sullivan and his screenwriter, Gerry Stembridge have come at the story of Martin Cahill from a more entertainment driven perspective.

The film looks great - O'Sullivan's background as a director of photography pays off.

However, it inevitably suffers in comparison with Boorman's biopic because of its glossy Pulp Fiction style.

At times, it just comes across as smug.

When Boorman's movie was released in Ireland, it inevitably generated controversy as all big screen accounts of real life figures do.

There were accusations of Cahill's life being glamourised, of his cruelty being glossed over in favour of an urban Irish Robin Hood style story.

Some people argued it was immoral.

They should look at O'Sullivan's film. Crime does pay in the movie. Cahill/Lynch is depicted as a loveable rogue.

Whereas Boorman's film does not shirk in showing Cahill's vicious side - the snooker table scene - O'Sullivan and Stembridge dream up a more elaborate torture scene and even then, it's thrown away in a matter-of-fact way.

The conclusion also beggars belief.

'Ordinary Decent Criminal' is a terrible disappointment. Good soundtack by Blur's Damon Albarn though......

Arlington Road
(1999)

Menacing conspiracy thriller recalling the Oklahoma bomb
Mark Pellington's Arlington Road is an accomplished paranoia movie featuring Jeff Bridges as a college professor who begins to suspect his neighbours are right wing terrorists.

Tim Robbins and Joan Cusack are the neighbours who are not all they seem to be.

What makes this movie a cut above your average Hollywood thriller is its exemplary cast, its disturbing storyline and slick direction.

Bridges is perfect for the role of the troubled hero driven by an obsession about far right extremist terrorists.

Robbins and Cusack make chilling villains, clearly relishing their roles.

With tense action sequences, high octane editing, Pellington drives this movie along at juggernaut pace.

But what makes the material fascinating is the way he plays with his audience's perceptions of his characters.

At times, the film is reminiscent of Hitchcock's 'Rear Window' or the great paranoid thrillers of the 1970s like Coppola's 'The Conversation'. The literally explosive ending also recalls the ticking bomb in Hitchcock's 'Sabotage'.

If there is one criticism, it is at times the plot is too neat - do we really have to have our hero teach a course on far right terrorism?

It really wouldn't alter the film radically if he were a maths lecturer, a doctor, a computer programmer. What is central to the plot is a man's growing suspicion of his neighbour.

The movie recalls the Oklahoma bomb - especially in its final sequence where its montage of television news coverage is chillingly reminiscent of the mistaken assumptions made by the US networks about the real life massacre.

This is an important film because of the subject matter and all the harder to watch because of its importance.

Divorcing Jack
(1998)

Slick but overhyped and overcooked satire on Northern Ireland
Easily the most hyped film ever made in Northern Ireland, 'Divorcing Jack' falls very short of expectations. Billed as a refreshing satire on the petty bigotries that dominate Northern Irish life and the attempt by some to gloss over them, this is pretty heavy handed stuff.

Desperately trying to be as hip as Danny Boyle's 'Trainspotting,' David Caffrey's film lacks bite. David Thewlis, an accomplished actor, is totally at sea in the lead role - his accent is all over the place - as are other quality actors like Robert Lindsay and Jason Isaacs. The journalist anti-hero is the same old stereotype of the hard drinking, womanising hack we have grown tired of seeing onscreen and bears no reality to the real life models.

The difference between the anti-hero here and the anti-hero, Boyle in Oliver Stone's brilliant 'Salvador' is the latter is still human. James Woods' character in 'Salvador' is believable. David Thewlis's character is merely a cartoon sketch by comparison.

And at least Stone's film has some things to say about American involvement in Central America and the relationship between journalists and their sources. 'Divorcing Jack,' by way of contrast, has practically nothing to say. It can only offer feeble humour about the political stereotypes in the province - loyalist hard men, republican hard men and new model Irish republicans. What's all the more appalling is the smug way it tries to pass off this shoddy humour.

The one bright spark in the film is Rachel Griffith's performance. But all in all, this is pretty dismal stuff. Here's hoping 'Wild About Harry' is much, much better!

When the Sky Falls
(2000)

Faithful fictionalised account the life and death of a Dublin crime reporter.
Based on the life and shocking murder of real Irish crime reporter, Veronica Guerin, Joan Allen gives a solid performance as gutsy Sunday Globe hack Sinead Hamilton.

John Mackenzie's film remains largely faithful to its real life inspiration's story and does not hold back on the brutality of the Dublin underworld. Nothing is spared from the slaying of Pete Postlethwaite's Martin Cahill style character Shaughnessy to the chilling death of a young heroin addict in a Dublin nightclub. Funded by Rupert Murdoch's Sky Movies channel in the UK, the movie sometimes struggles to overcome its tight budget and the made for television feel. However in 'The Long Good Friday' director's capable hands, it often succeeds particularly with a spectacular car chase through the centre of Dublin.

Where the film really scores is in its supporting performances - most notably, Jimmy Smallhorne as Hamilton's underworld confidante, Ruairi Conroy as a heroin addict, Liam Cunningham and Postlethwaite as old school crooks and particularly, Gerard Flynn as Hamilton's nemesis Hackett and Gavin Kielty as the skinhead, Tattoo. Mackenzie also somehow manages to wring out decent performances from Patrick Bergin as the frustrated cop, Mackey and Jason Barry as his partner.

If there are drawbacks it is the flatness of the relationship between Hamilton and her husband (Kevin McNally) - oddly reminiscent of the relationship between Lacey and her husband in Cagney and Lacey. The newspaper scenes are also a bit hackneyed - bearing little resemblance to real life newsrooms.

A superior film to Dublin crime pics, Ordinary Decent Criminal and The Vicious Circle, it still falls short of the visual, narrative and performing heights of John Boorman's The General. Nevertheless, When the Sky Falls is still good entertainment and one of the more honest biopics you are likely to see in cinemas this year. It will be interesting to see how this film travels beyond Ireland where Guerin's death caused so much outrage.

Le huitième jour
(1996)

Original, refreshing, challenging, puts Rain Man in the shade
This is the French and Belgians doing what they do best. It's quirky, visually inventive, exhilarating and emotionally challenging storytelling. Director Jaco van Dormael takes us into the world of Georges, a Down's Syndrome sufferer and his quest for a meaningful relationship with someone, just anyone. This is not done in a patronising way but with a great sense of fun and also honesty. Georges' interplay with corporate management guru, Harry is dazzlingly handled - shifting from comedy to tragedy back to comedy again with breathtaking ease.

The Eighth Day puts similar Hollywood fare like Barry Levinson's Oscar winning Rain Man or Robert Zemeckis's Forrest Gump well and truly in the shade. At times, it evokes the humour of Milos Forman's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest with shades of Dennis Potter thrown in for good measure.

As the emotionally blunted and desperately lonely yuppie, Harry, Daniel Auteuil turns in yet another sublime performance. But it is matched by the brilliant Pascal Duquenne as Georges. It's a movie with uniformly strong performances and so many, memorable set pieces - the shoe shop scene, car showroom scene, George's dance to Genesis's 'Jesus He Knows Me,' the conference scene, the fireworks scene. If you haven't seen it, there's only one thing to do. Just rent it or attend a screening at a retro cinema near you and see what you've been missing. Better still, buy this movie. Sheer genius.....

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