Starring: Jim Sturgess, Ben Kingsley, Natalie Press, Kevin Zegers, Rose McGowan, Tom Collins
Rated R for Strong Brutal Violence and Torture, Language and Some Sexuality
There's something that has always fascinated me about The Troubles, the decades-long conflict between England and Ireland (that was the culmination of centuries of strife). Perhaps it's because of my partly Irish heritage. Or maybe it's because I have a fondness for bittersweet nostalgia that for some reason Ireland represents in my mind. Or maybe it's because I appreciate movies with a strong cultural background.
There have been plenty of movies that have used this conflict as the stage ("The Devil's Own" and "'71" are two such examples, although 'The Crying Game" is probably the best known), but there has yet to be a "definitive" movie about The Troubles. Perhaps one can't be made. It was a war that was the culmination of nearly a millennium of fighting that no film could possibly cover. "Fifty Dead Men Walking," based on the true story of Martin McGartland (who claimed that almost none of what happens in the film actually happened in real life), isn't it. But it's worth seeing for those who have an interest in the subject.
Martin McGartland (Sturgess) is a young Irish lad in the late eighties. He's a Catholic, and as such his job prospects are next to nil and he is under constant oppression from the occupying British forces. To make ends meet, he steals clothes and fences them. Because of his ties to the community, the British want him to act as a double agent with the IRA. He agrees and rises through the ranks, giving his handler, Fergus (Kingsley), loads of information while keeping his activities secret from everyone, including his friend Sean (Zegers) and girlfriend Lara (Press).
Director Kari Skogland gives the film an effective, if clichéd, look and feel. This isn't the simple, old-fashioned Ireland where everyone wears a flat cap and meets the lads at the pub after a hard day's work. This is a gritty, grungy and violent Ireland where one wrong move can end up with "you lying in a ditch with a bullet in the back of your head." Skogland gives this film a ferocious energy that creates a sense of danger that is sometimes palpable, but using handheld cameras and color desaturation is a little tired and has lost its effectiveness over the years. Couldn't she have gotten the same effect with different methods?
The performances are terrific, but none are flashy, which is by design. Jim Sturgess, a highly talented British actor who went from bit player to leading man in the span of about seven years, is terrific as Martin. He's more than capable of carrying a movie on his own, even if a huge part of it is playing against Ben Kingsley. In the beginning, he's a cocky Irish kid who has fun goading British soldiers, but he essentially falls into being a spy (how this actually happens is never made clear). He's very good at what he does, but he probably doesn't know how precarious his situation actually is. His relationship with Ben Kingsley, always a fine actor, goes from distrust to an almost father-son bond. Fergus knows full well that Martin is playing a dangerous game, but as a superior reminds him, the big picture matters more than one guy. This gives us the sense that Fergus may leave his pawn out to dry when the chips are down, Able support is provided by Natalie Press as the worried girlfriend, Kevin Zegers and Rose McGowan. All sport flawless Irish accents (save for Kingsley, who is British). That last aspect of the film is really almost a flaw. The accents are so thick that subtitles are mandatory; I saw this movie a few years ago and couldn't understand a word of it.
The film tries to do too much. There are more than a few instances where a scene has been left on the cutting room floor, and some of the characters feel underdeveloped. Take Grace (McGowan) for instance. The redheaded beauty is a powerful figure in the IRA, but little is done with her. McGowan is so good that I wished she was in more scenes.
Still, the film is worth seeing for what it is. It's always interesting and the ending crackles with tension, even if we know the end (the film is bookended by a clip of Martin in exile).