Where would Irish filmmakers these days be without The Troubles? In just the past couple of years, we've seen The Crying Game, In the Name of the Father, Michael Collins, Some Mother's Son, and now The Boxer, the latest collaboration between director Jim Sheridan, screenwriter Terry George, and Daniel Day-Lewis. It's a powerful film made somewhat less so by the familiarity of its themes and the reined-in conception of its lead character, the boxer Danny Flynn (who's played by Day-Lewis). Because of the previous Sheridan and Day-Lewis collaborations, My Left Foot and In the Name of the Father, we, of course, expect greatness. When the result is less than that, as it is here, it's impossible not to feel gypped.
But surely we can expect no less. Day-Lewis and Sheridan, even in The Boxer, have the kind of actor-director rapport that goes way beyond "chemistry." They seem to find totally fresh ways of inspiring each other (unlike, say, the vaunted Scorsese-De Niro pairing, which has grown punch-drunk). Each time out for these two is a reinvention. For Day-Lewis, who gets inside his characters' skins more deeply than any British actor since Olivier, these roles must be like lifeblood.
His Danny Flynn is a former IRA soldier who has just been released from 14 years in a Belfast prison. He's renounced the cause--or at least its violence--and is shunned by most of the IRA community. Picking up a sledgehammer, he hacks his way back into the sealed-up flat where he used to live and decides to get back into the boxing ring where he once had been a star. He also re-connects--tentatively, almost as if in a sleepwalk--with Maggie (Emily Watson), an old flame from his pre-prison days who ended up marrying Danny's best friend, now incarcerated.
Maggie, whose father, Joe Hamill (Brian Cox), is the local IRA honcho, still hankers for Danny--you can tell from the way her saucer eyes expand in his presence. Danny, rendered near-mute from so many years of being locked in, is a blank at first; but when he lets down his guard, the Irish comes flowing out: "Maggie," he says, "you still have my soul, for what it's worth."
The Boxer is very observant about the ways in which women are enlisted in the IRA cause. We see a wedding reception in which the wives of imprisoned IRA soldiers are toasted by Joe and his throng. You can see how the women's fidelity is enforced all too strenuously by the men (and many of the women) as a kind of battle regimen; they must be above reproach--for the cause. And for a woman like Maggie, who has no deep feeling for her husband, her isolation from tenderness is itself a kind of imprisonment.
Sheridan and George set The Boxer at a time when all but the hardest-line IRA operatives are looking for a way to end the violence. Joe has been working out a cease-fire with the British in order to return some POWs, but Harry (Gerard McSorley) will have none of it. He's the spoiler of the peace. When he roots out the growing affections between Maggie and Danny, their lives are endangered.
Sheridan, with the great assistance of his cinematographer Chris Menges, recreates a ripped-apart Belfast (actually filmed in Dublin) with startling verity. There are passages in this film that recall the best moments in Welcome to Sarajevo, such as the scene at night where Danny is jumping rope in his flat and suddenly narrowly misses a bullet through the window as the streets below erupt in mayhem. There's a terrific protracted sequence in which Danny fights a Protestant White Hope in the newly renovated local gym, and the police chief, who has been promoting the fight as a good piece of Catholic-Protestant relations, gets blown up in his car for his troubles. The suddenness of the violence in this movie has a hair-trigger force. You never know when the explosions will come.
It's understandable that Danny would look to the boxing ring for his sanctuary; it's still a place where violence can be made to follow the rules. And Danny is a gentleman in the ring. In a near-hallucinatory scene, we see him battling an African fighter in a match in an elegant London supper club for the delectation of its tuxedoed patrons; when the ref doesn't stop Danny's rout of the other boxer, he stops the fight himself--losing the match but not his dignity.
The character of Danny originated in a screenplay by Sheridan about the Irish flyweight champion Barry McGuigan, who served as an advisor on the movie and about whom in 1985 Sheridan wrote a juicy, hero-worshippy biography called Leave the Fighting to McGuigan. If anything, Sheridan and George have made Danny in The Boxer even more of a hero than McGuigan was. In Sheridan's book, for example, we read that the African boxer discussed above was hit so hard that he became comatose and later died--which almost caused an anguished McGuigan to give up fighting. In The Boxer, Danny is a non-sectarian white knight--above reproach both in the ring and out. (He doesn't even get carnal with Maggie.) He rehabilitates his old, soused trainer, Ike Weir (Ken Stott), and destroys a hidden cache of IRA explosives. He even ends up winning over Maggie's furious son Liam (Ciaran Fitzgerald), who at first resents Danny's political nonviolence and growing attachment to his mother.
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Day-Lewis and Watson look great together; they create drama just by walking side by side through East Belfast. With his chiseled leanness and her imploring eyes and thick mane of hair, they're perfectly matched. Their pairing may not have the blessing of the IRA, but it answers to a higher power.
But having put these two together, Sheridan doesn't draw out their best possibilities. Danny is sullen for too long, and his scenes with Maggie at times have a conventional Hollywood movie-star ardor. It's almost as if Sheridan conceived The Boxer as a cross between a political semi-documentary about The Troubles and an old Warner Bros. prize-fighting melodrama, with perhaps some On the Waterfront thrown in. Danny's protracted strong-silent act has its depth-charges, but it's also a little dull.
Still, Day-Lewis is such a remarkable actor that you never for a minute believe this man is anything but a boxer. You can see how Danny would want to feel pain in the ring again if only to bring some sensation back into his life. Day-Lewis is poised for a great performance in The Boxer, but the script isn't up to his weight class. He's upstaged by the way the film dwells on IRA machinations and the look and feel of the Belfast streets, and as well done as that material is here, it's nothing new. It can't compare to what might have been: a full-scale performance by Daniel Day-Lewis as an Irish raging bull--a rebel with a cause. There are still traces of greatness in what he attempts, and it's more than enough to make the movie worth a lingering look.
Directed by Jim Sheridan. Written by Jim Sheridan and Terry George. Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Emily Watson, and Brian Cox. Opens Friday.