With the always raucous, spirited celebration of St. Patrick's Day on the near horizon here in New York City, my thoughts turn to the powerful mystique of Ireland, and the many outstanding films that reflect it.
First, a short preamble...as a kid, I first fell in love with Ireland when I saw Barry Fitzgerald in Going My Way (1944). I adored his special twinkle, and his distinctive voice and accent ... and I had to know, where was he from?
Then years later, when my feet first touched Irish soil, the land, the lore, and most of all, the open-hearted character of the people captivated me. I felt instantly at home. What struck me most was the wealth of contradictions in the Irish character: the rich humor and poetry of its people belying centuries of conflict, privation and oppression.
Perhaps the Irish lack the reserve of their English cousins because the conditions they've endured never gave them the luxury to afford it. Over the centuries life there has most often represented a struggle against steep odds.
No movie in or about Ireland better illustrates this than Robert Flaherty's astonishing documentary, Man Of Aran (1934). Flaherty, the Irish-American director of the classic Nanook of The North and father of the documentary form, shot the film on the country's remote Aran Islands. Aran depicts -- simply and beautifully -- the primal struggle between humanity and the most powerful of elements: the sea. We watch in wonder as the residents of this desolate island undergo their back-breaking, dangerous tasks each day with hardy, cheerful determination. Man Of Aran is pure visual poetry, astounding and unforgettable.
Irish-American director John Ford (born John Feeney) was best known for his Westerns, but he also paid homage to the sod of his forebears in two special films.
The Informer (1935) tells the tragic story of one Gypo Nolan (Victor McLaglen), an IRA member who betrays a friend for money, and of course, pays dearly for it. The movie is tense and atmospheric, and McLaglen is terrific in the title role, a hulking, stupid, desperate man alternately eliciting our sympathy and contempt. (He deservedly won an Oscar for his performance.)
Seventeen years later, Ford realized his long-standing ambition to direct a light, colorful valentine to Ireland called The Quiet Man. Sean Thornton, a former boxer (John Wayne) returns to his native land from America and must adjust to the peculiar customs and manners of Irish small-town life. Featuring a radiant Maureen O'Hara as fiery red-head Mary Kate Danaher, Wayne's love interest, and Victor McLaglen again in a hilarious turn as O'Hara's absurdly protective older brother, The Quiet Man is really a whole lot of blarney, but highly entertaining blarney nonetheless. It is also the closest the great John Ford ever got to making a purely romantic picture.
Predictably, some of the best dramas set in Ireland focus on the historic conflict between its native people and their British occupiers. At the top of any such list sits Carol Reed's classic nail-biter, Odd Man Out (1947), which helped assure young James Mason's ascent to stardom. In war-torn Belfast, rebel leader Johnny McQueen (Mason) plots and executes a daring robbery to fund operations against the British, a caper which goes horribly wrong and leaves him isolated and on the run. Bolstered by a fine supporting turn from a young Cyril Cusack, the movie is taut, intelligent and exciting, with Mason turning in an electric performance as the doomed protagonist. (Maddeningly, this title is hard to find on DVD, and if found, not cheap.)
And now to some more recent depictions of the Emerald Isle, and one of my favorite feel-good movies: Alan Parker's The Commitments (1991). A funny and inspiring tale chronicling the formation of a soul-infused rock band in Dublin, the movie is downright infectious, with a vibrant, foot stomping soundtrack. Colm Meaney stands out in a lively, colorful cast as the bewildered father of one of the bandmates. Commitments is a must-see film that goes down as smoothly as a pint of Guinness.
Jim Sheridan's In The Name Of The Father (1993) is a worthy modern successor to Odd Man Out, recounting the real-life case of a father and son falsely accused of a terrorist bombing by the British. Daniel Day-Lewis and Pete Postlethwaite are both first-rate in Oscar-nominated roles as the angry son and his bewildered, gentle father, and Emma Thompson lends excellent support as their determined barrister. A literate and thoroughly engrossing tale of injustice, Father also earned a best Picture nod at the 1993 Oscars, as did both Day-Lewis and Postlethwaite.
Set on the West Coast of Ireland in the late 1940s, John Sayles' The Secret Of Roan Inish (1994) tracks one youngster's attempt to uncover a mystery that sheds light on her family's history and the fate of her little brother. After her mother dies, plucky young Fiona (Courtney) goes to live with her grandparents. They live right across from their prior island home, Roan Inish, which the family abandoned a few years earlier, when at high-tide, Fiona's baby brother Jamie drifted out to sea in his wooden cradle. Soon Fiona is hearing tales about seals that turn into humans -- and rumors that Roan Inish is still occupied. This intimate fable casts its spell gradually, but leaves you warm and satisfied, with lush cinematography by Haskell Wexler, and first-rate turns from Jeni Courtney as Fiona and Mick Lally as kindly grandfather Hugh.
Irish director Neil Jordan made his biggest splash in 1992 with The Crying Game, which featured a gender-twist ending noone could stop talking about. Six years later, Jordan outdid himself again in a lesser-known release called The Butcher Boy. The blackest of black comedies, Boy relates the bizarre story of Francie Brady, a boy whose own derangement allows him to cope with the most dysfunctional of circumstances, including the suicide of his mother. Strange, hypnotic and surreal, Butcher Boy is unlike anything you've seen. Stephen Rea is effective as always playing Francie's drunken father, but it's Eamonn Owens' stunning portrayal of one troubled kid that stays with you. (Owens was plucked out of 2,000 child actors to assume the role.) Though the film is undeniably bleak, Jordan's magic camera and storytelling gifts transcend this darkest of subjects, creating a work of unexpected wonder and rewards.
Bloody Sunday, the tragic 1972 riot in Derry pitting angry Northern Ireland citizens against the British authorities, was recreated to powerful effect in a film of the same name, released in 2002. Shot by director Paul Greengrass in pseudo-documentary style with urgent, real-time pacing, the film has an authenticity and immediacy that makes the viewer feel like a witness to real tragedy. Not for the faint of heart, Bloody Sunday unnerves in its portrayal one of the watershed moments in this destructive, centuries-old conflict. (Greengrass would go on to duplicate this same stomach-churning, "you are there" feeling in his more recent United 93). As with his later film, Bloody Sunday subconsciously sends a vital signal to its rapt viewers: never forget.
I close with Steve McQueen's Hunger (2008), recently released on The Criterion Collection. Based on real events, the film portrays the horrendous conditions inside Belfast's Maze Prison in 1981, exacerbated by resistance from its IRA prisoner population, who are protesting the British government's refusal to grant them political prisoner status. The dehumanizing clashes between inmates and guards culminate in the IRA's decision to launch a concerted hunger strike campaign, led by prisoner Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender). Though the film never shrinks from showing all the violence and squalor within Maze, it also tells a human story, evoking the deadening effect of this suffocating, hostile atmosphere on prisoners and guards alike. As the story shifts to Sands himself (superbly played by Michael Fassbender), we come to understand just how deeply the cause runs in the hearts and minds of these proud, defiant men, and why they might willingly sacrifice their lives to advance it.
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