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10 films about The Troubles

Eoghan Lyng lists 10 dirty movies about the chaos and conflict that prevailed in Northern Ireland for several decades, until the signing of The Good Friday Agreement in 1998

As with every July 12th, the Orange Marchers cornered the Queen’s avenues of Belfast with the zest of 1690 ringing through the 2019 buildings. It’s a march that symbolises the divisions that exist still in Ireland’s most northerly province. These divisions led to a war, starting in the 1960s, only the shared power-sharing handshakes of The Good Friday Agreement ceased a 30-year conflict. Chaos and conflict have narrative properties, a quality which has been showcased in several films. Though the most galling depictions of The Troubles were saved until the millennium, many fine reflections of conflated conflicted truths found their to the cutting room floors, some telling reflections of Her Majesty’s Government serialised in serial film.

And yet neither the Loyalist nor the Republican Movements acted with great compassion, the torment of war encased in the artillery on both sides. This list neither wags nor holds a finger at the disputatious activities which involved three nations. Rather it seeks to understand the artistry which reflected a war divided over monarchic loyalties, hibernal loyalties and a statement of Northern Irish identity. The impact of a Brexit Vote (which Northern Ireland voted against) may cause a future return to the struggles. For some, reunification seems paramount, for others, an affront to their proud identity. As it stands the first opens in an Ireland preparing, the last in Scotland finishing a war, while the eight impress the haunting conflicts of a residual, never ending battle.


1. Ryan’s Daughter (David Lean, 1970):

The gun toting, bog smoking antics of the Republican movement matches the backdrop of David Lean’s cinematic portraiture, the Kerry landscape wistfully romantic in spirited woodlands. Soldiers and bullets enter the mountainous backdrop as a local married pub lady enters into a liaison with a soldier whose comrades kill her townsmen. David Lean’s pastoral, political spectacle carries a covert change cutting the myriad of masked freedom fighting memories in the backdrop of a Britain awaiting the toll of The Troubles.

Steely in appearance, Robert Mitchum strides as the apprised Charles Shaughnessy, a local teacher whose father in law informs the soldiers from the provincial puissant of his tavern and whose wife sleeps with one of the soldiers Shaughnessy personally and politically opposes. Often unfairly compared to the majesty of Lean’s earlier efforts, Ryan’s Daughter is a seismic work, understated in the historical backdrop Ireland and Britain still share. Gun smuggled capers echo the bordered insanities Irish men experienced in the 1970s, writhing to the efforts of an Empire uninterested and unimpressed with the isles it inhabits. The agrarian agricultural beauty envelopes the romance the fervent fancies Rosy (Sarah Miles) shares with an exhibit of soldiers, waiting to offer their flame fancied pistols.


2. The Outsider (Tony Luraschi, 1980):

An American ascending from the American dream to a hibernal one, Craig Wesser acts convincingly in the dual role of actor and Vietnam veteran, violently entering the indolent Belfast hovels. Notorious on release, The Outsider suffered the ignominy of being dropped from a London festival after filming in Northern Ireland had proven unsustainable. And yet there’s a power to the film foolishly ignored by the festival goers, crept as it is in crepuscular imagery and masculine fragility. Behind the array of metallic weaponry comes a tale of generational fortitude. Wesser plays the torn-down American, eager to follow his Grandfather’s career in ridding Ireland of a British burden. Then there’s Sterling Hayden, the aged grandparent, burdened with a secret of British platitude.


3. Maeve (Pat Murphy and John Davies, 1981):

The Irish Times called it “Ireland’s first bona fide feminist film”. If an oversimplification (I’d make a strong case that Ryan’s Daughter pipped it), the story at least understands the struggles of the everyday woman returning from the liberal London lounge-ways for a Belfast betrothed to gender politics. Maeve (Mary Jackson), scarf worn and headstrong, stands in front of a machine gun poking heavy, imbuing the Godardian French Wave milieu in her dress. Director Pat Murphy was a founder of the feminist film and video distribution network Circles, tellingly calling both England and Ireland for their questionable exemplars in gender representation at the turn of the 1980s.


4. Cal (Pat O’Connor, 1984):

Orange Orders open lacerated words, as Loyalists lacerate young Cal (John Lynch) for his allegiances to the provisional Irish Republican Army. Amidst the towering bombs which batter the broken pebbles they walk comes one of the most deeply romantic movies of the last thirty-five years. Mark Knopfler, a thoughtful Glaswegian entranced in his six strings, soundtracks Helen Mirren, a widowed, willowy ingenue cascaded in her heart strings. Entranced in Marcella’s arms, Cal crosses the threshold of Catholic guilt, slain in his love for her posture, demonstrated in his killings of her slain husband. The leisured love stems from screenwriter’s Bernard MacLaverty’s liturgical prose, learned in the perspective Belfast prisons Cal must enter and Marcella must wade through a doleful dalliance as bested battleground breaks them down.


5. Elephant (Alan Clarke, 1989):

A dawn rises. A car passes. A man turns to his urinal. He’s bulleted into the toiletry fluids, pouring his own bodily blood over his bodily fluid. Alan Clarke’s uncompromising, punchy work works without dialogue, the camera acting out the variety of killings which haunt Northern Ireland on a daily basis. The naturalistic handheld manner of this short film won Clarke plaudits; his producer, Danny Boyle, would direct serial zombie thriller 28 Days Later (Danny Boyle, 2002) with a very similar setup. Shooting the shootings that come unresolved to the world, Clarke’s observational style called back to Yoko Ono’s late 1960s’ commentary Rape, shocking audiences with a style less glamorous than scurrilous. It’s largely silent, though take warning. Some of the killings are deafening in their protrusion.


6. In The Name Of The Father (Jim Sheridan, 1993):

Daniel Day Lewis won three Oscars, one as a paraplegic writer, one as a Western Oil Baron, one as America’s liberator of slavery. Yet Day Lewis never gave as fiery a performance as he did incarcerating the incarcerated emotions he endeavoured through Gerry Conlon’s real life trajectory. Arrested as one of The Guilford Four, Conlon was jailed in 1975, wrongfully sentenced for fifteen years as a supposed Provisional IRA bomber. Sinewy in appearance, leathery in hair, Day Lewis walks with rock assurance during the film’s telling climax, the pathway to a journalist rimmed front door a small solace after fifteen years a wronged convict. Emma Thompson works remarkably in her appearance as Conlon’s trusted lawyer, while Pete Postlethwaite wades in his cell as the dejected Giuseppe Conlon. Where Day Lewis gives his best, so does Postlethwaite, two brilliant English actors with impeccable Northern Irish diction. Fittingly, Postlethwaite’s final performance came as Fergus Colm, the callous Irish crime lord in Ben Affleck’s excellent The Town.


7. The Informant (Jim McBride, 1997):

Before Harvey Weinstein shocked the world with professed lechery, he shocked the film world when the lightweight Shakespeare In Love (John Madden) championed the astonishing Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg) for the 1998 Best Picture Award. In the midst came an unvarnished showtime movie, dedicated to showcasing the trichotomy of male perspective. The capricious Gingy (Anthony Brophy) must stand against his IRA compeers to work with, beside and for the will of an English Lieutenant (Cary Elwes) and a proud Protestant detective (the hoary Timothy Dalton) in a war none will ultimately win.

“The movie is important, because it exposes the complete abdication of morality that happens when two nations go to war” the two-time Bond recalled. “Most people believe, in a war, that one side’s bad and one side’s good. But the minute you go to war, the rules go out the window and both sides become bad.”

In a Dublin licked up to explore the battle beaten Belfast, Jim McBride’s exploration into the human spirit examines the why’s, how’s and who’s of the conflict, relegated to television at a time when no major distributor would have promoted the film. And yet there’s a telling humanity to the proceedings, not least when Maria Lennon’s Roísín berates Dalton’s DCI Rennie for recruiting Catholic women for sexual pleasure.


8. Bloody Sunday (Paul Greengrass, 2002):

Audiences who knew James Nesbitt as the unflappable lead from the comic Cold Feet could scarcely imagine the depth, nuance, stealth and steel he’d bring as the real life Ivan Cooper. A proud Presbyterian unaware of the circumstances behind Bloody Sunday, Nesbitt took to reading the script while filming another project in Manchester. It moved him as effectively as he moved his audiences in what’s arguably the performance of his life. Detailing the real life tragedy of a peaceful protest, the paramilitary killings outraged many in Britain. Vanessa Redgrave marched for resolution, Paul McCartney issued a musical statement, U2 commemorated the song in one of their more potent pieces. Fittingly, Bono’s voice closes the film with gravitas.

“I’ve seen the film six times now,” the real life Cooper revealed “And my first thoughts were that it was an emotional experience. I’m able to say with confidence that it was made with great integrity.”

Helmed by director Paul Greengrass, the film’s naturalistic style of filming added a padding of telling realism, driving viewers into the middle of the senseless 1972 killings. Hollywood took notice of his skill: Greengrass earned his place as Jason Bourne (2016) director largely on the strength of Bloody Sunday.

Bloody Sunday is also pictured at the top of this article.

9. Hunger (Steve McQueen, 2008):

One take. A 17-minute, unending, uncompromising take. The priest talks of God, the prisoner talks of country. Steve McQueen’s first, finest and most harrowing work came from the true life horror stories from the HM Prison Maze, innocent by-standing men stripped by their dignities by a Government shadowed overseas. Just as it took an English director to paint the atrocities of Bloody Sunday, another brilliantly ambitious English man saw the truth in the sullied cells which starved the intellect of its prisoners as harshly as they starved their bodies. We could write an entire article on why this film should be remembered, but instead I’ll focus on sinewy dialogue, Michael Fassbender’s Bobby Sands and Liam Cunningham’s Father Dominic Moran exchanging sharp words, cutting in their veneer, tense in their timing. Involving, issue non resolving, the scene sits in solemn penance, one long take with few of the pyrotechnics employed throughout Birdman. Staggering.


10. The Journey (Nick Hamm, 2016):

It started with the barbed shot, it ended with the barbed retort. The Journey chronicles the voyage Republicanism and Unionism joined, fittingly embodied in a taxi driven by an impartial driver. Colm Meaney and Timothy Spall star as Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley, two political combatants who worked in close collaboration to steer their shared country through the devolution of power in the region. Brilliant and bathetically, the claustrophobic taxi’s engine mirrors the distressed sounds a battle ground surrounded these two men. The furnished Scottish woodlands echoes the planted fears these men share. As a reverend, McGuinness sees Paisley’s position as more polemic than parochial. As a former member of the Irish Republican Army, Paisley sees McGuinness’s political convictions with criminal conviction. Meaney paid tribute to McGuinness in a 2017 Guardian, a man whose demise followed the real life Paisley’s. And yet the film attributes and pays tribute to the figureheads, whose shared journey lead to a safer home neither of them experienced.

By Eoghan Lyng - 15-07-2019

Throughout a journey found through his own writings and the writings of other filmmakers, Eoghan has taken to the spirit of the surreal to find greater meaning from the real. He finds it far easier to...

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