In the Name of the Father (1993) explores the harsh tactics of the British forces in reaction to IRA terrorism. It is based on the real-life Guildford Four, who, with the help of coerced confessions and manufactured evidence, were wrongly convicted of an IRA atrocity that they had nothing to do with. In the Name of the Father focuses on the story of one of the Four, Gerry Conlon (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his physically frail father (Pete Postlethwaite – in his greatest performance), who tried to help his son and was thrown in prison with him. The Guilford Four spent years in prison, ultimately being cleared with the help of a crusading lawyer (Emma Thompson). Both In the Name of the Father (nominated for seven Oscars) and The Boxer were directed by Jim Sheridan.
In the Name of the Father is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Netflix, Amazon, iTunes and Vudu.
The Boxer (1996): The great Daniel Day-Lewis plays a boxer who returns to Belfast after doing 14 years in prison. Catholic himself, he’s committed to moving the community on from sectarian violence by opening a gym that is open to Catholics and Protestants. An IRA commander doesn’t like it, setting up high drama and a thriller ending. The superb supporting cast includes Gerard McSorley, Emily Watson and Brian Cox.
The Boxer is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Netflix, Amazon, iTunes and Vudu.
Bloody Sunday (2002) tells the story of one of the most significant moments of The Troubles, the 1972 shootings in Derry, from the perspective of a key participant – Ivan Cooper, the leader of a movement to achieve a united Ireland through non-violent means. (That’s important, because most of these films about The Troubles revolve around the IRA, and Bloody Sunday recognizes the historical place of other nationalists.)
Northern Irish actor James Nesbitt is brilliant as Cooper, a man who is trying to do the impossible – lead a mass demonstration into a tinderbox and keep it peaceful. It’s possible that either or both the unionist paramilitaries and the IRA may provoke violence to further their own aims. The British are supposed to protect the marchers from the unionists, but they’re on edge and trigger-happy. Cooper is forced to play a desperate game of Whack-a-Mole to prevent violence.
Of course, what happened was that British troops shot and killed unarmed marchers and passers-by, thus creating a turning point in The Troubles, where most violence had been between Irish nationalist and unionist paramilitaries. After Bloody Sunday, the British Army could no longer credibly be seen as maintaining the peace to protect Northern Irish Catholics, and support among Catholics for the Provisional IRA spiked upward.
Made for TV, Bloody Sunday won the Audience Award at Sundance and the Golden Bear at Berlin. Bloody Sunday (don’t confuse it with the 1971 Sunday Bloody Sunday) is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Netflix, Amazon, iTunes and Vudu.
The compelling and affecting true-life drama Omagh (2004) begins with the infamous 1999 car bombing in Omagh, Northern Ireland. But Omagh is more about the aftermath – the pain and grief of the survivors as they strive for justice and accountability.
The bombing, by a nationalist splinter group, killed 29 on the small town’s market street. It had been just four months since the Good Friday Accord, and both mainstream republicans and unionists were getting used to the day-to-day peace of a post-Troubles era. The bombing was a jarring interruption of that peace, and many felt even more betrayed because the “warning” actually worked to draw more victims toward the lethal blast.
Omagh vividly depicts the carnage and chaos after the blast. The desperate search for loved ones amid the confusion is profoundly moving. We experience Omagh through the perspective of Michael Gallagher, father of one of the victims. He takes the helm of the survivors group as they seek answers – and run into a series of stone walls and cover-ups. The soft-spoken Gallagher may be the least histrionic leader in human history, and he is able to lead because the other survivors rely on his decency, good sense and quiet courage. We also see that – as in real life – people grieve at different paces, and the obsession of some in the family doesn’t work for others.
Michael Gallagher is played by the veteran actor Gerard McSorley (In the Name of the Father, Widow’s Peak, Braveheart, The Boxer, Bloody Sunday). It is McSorley’s powerful and profoundly sad performance that elevates Omagh.
Director Pete Travis employs a jiggly camera and a spare soundtrack to focus our attention on the characters with intimacy and immediacy. When we hear the door closed after the last guest leaves a funeral, the sound of the latch communicates more finality than would any dialogue.
Omagh is available on DVD from Netflix.
Five Minutes of Heaven (2009) explores the challenges of reconciliation after The Troubles. The story begins in 1975 when a teenage unionist paramilitary murders a Catholic teen as a reprisal and then serves a prison sentence. Thirty-three years later (and after the 1998 Good Friday Accords), a reconciliation panel sets up an on-camera meeting between the killer (Liam Neeson) and the victim’s brother (James Nesbitt). But the surviving brother is not willing to reconcile, and instead has vengeance on his mind…
Five Minutes of Heaven is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Netflix, Amazon (free on Amazon Prime), iTunes and Sundance Now.
The Crying Game (1992): This character-driven IRA drama contains one of the biggest surprise plot twists in movie history. Stephen Rea plays Fergus, an IRA soldier who helps kidnap a British soldier (Forest Whitaker). The operation goes awry, the soldier is killed, and Fergus goes on the lam to London. Both out of guilt and curiosity, he looks up the soldier’s lover. The heart of the movie is what happens next with the lover (and I ain’t going to tell you). And then the IRA shows up unexpectedly to push The Crying Game into a thriller ending. Great cast includes Miranda Richardson, Adrian Dunbar, Jim Broadbent and, in one of cinema’s most unforgettable roles, Jaye Davidson.
The Crying Game is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Netflix, Amazon (free on Amazon Prime), iTunes, Vudu and Hulu.
Shadow Dancer (2013): In 1990s Belfast, thirtyish single mom Collette (Andrea Riseborough) is captured by British security while planting an IRA bomb in London. Faced with the choice of a long imprisonment with her young son snatched off to foster care, Collette reluctantly agrees to return to Belfast and inform on her IRA unit. This would make for a tense ride in any case, but Collette belongs to a crew run by her two adult brothers, and all three live with their mother. The three siblings, the IRA’s internal security chief and Collette’s British handler are all paranoid out of necessity.
The heart of the film is Andrea Riseborough’s fine performance as Collette. Surrounded by suspicious friends and foes alike, she must be contained and ever watchful. She cannot reveal that the tension is ripping her apart on the inside. And so we go along on Shadow Dancer’s wild ride, all the way to its noirish ending.
Shadow Dancer is available on DVD from Netflix and Redbox and streaming from Amazon, iTunes Vudu, YouTube and GooglePlay.
The General (1998) is based on the life of Dublin crimelord, Martin Cahill (Brendan Gleeson) , who led several headline-grabbing heists while “hiding in plain sight” and taunting the cops. A ruthless police commander (Jon Voight) throws every available resource at Cahill, but still can’t bring him to justice. Then Cahill finds that he has crossed the Provisional IRA… Gleeson’s performance as the lovable, canny and ruthless Cahill is wonderful. John Boorman won Best Director at Cannes.
The General (don’t confuse it with the 1926 Buster Keaton classic of the same name) is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Netflix, Amazon (free on Amazon Prime), iTunes and Vudu.
Cal (1984): A twenty-something young guy is the getaway driver for an IRA assassination of a Protestant cop. He feels guilty when he learns later that the cop’s fortyish widow (Helen Mirren) is Catholic. He tries to atone by dropping out of the IRA and working on her farm. Will they fall in love? Will the IRA let him alone? Will she find out that he helped murder her husband? Mirren won Best Actress at Cannes.
Unfortunately, Cal is not available for DVD rental or streaming. You can find it on VHS from Amazon, on an Asian DVD on eBay and from some dodgy sources online. Keep an eye out for Cal on the good cable TV movie channels.
Note: Ronin and Patriot Games are action thrillers involving the IRA, but their plots just use the IRA for a thriller set-up, and the movies themselves are not really about The Troubles.