THE BOXER, 1997
directed by: Jim Sheridan
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Emily Watson, Brian Cox, Nye Heron, Jer O’Leary
Review by Virginia De Witt
SYNOPSIS:On the eve of peace being declared in Northern Ireland, Danny Flynn is released from prison after serving 14 years for his youthful involvement with the IRA. Danny’s former girlfriend, Maggie, married his best friend, Tommy Doyle, and had a son, Liam. Tommy is now in prison himself and Maggie is watched vigilantly by the local community as she is now a prisoner’s wife and must be above reproach at all times. Danny sets out to start his life anew, and continue with his boxing career which had been interrupted by his prison term. He begins by initiating a training program for young boxers in the youth centre where Maggie also works. They reconnect even though it is dangerous for them to be seen together. At the same time, Danny begins to fight professionally again. Events spiral out of control as Maggie’s young son, Liam, is furious over his mother’s attachment to Danny. As well, Danny’s newfound commitment to the peace process sets him on a collision course with members of the local IRA.
This third collaboration between writer/director Jim Sheridan and Daniel Day-Lewis is the least well known. It was shot from an original screenplay co-written by Sheridan and Terry George. Their main object in telling the fictional story of Danny Flynn was to dramatize the culmination of the peace process and the consequences of it in the lives of ordinary people living in Belfast. In an interview on the DVD, Sheridan says the idea for the story came to him while he was living in New York in the ‘80s watching the news from Ireland, which was all bad. Then one night, a young Irish boxer, Barry McGuigan, was featured and said, “Leave the fighting to McGuigan.” Sheridan relates how he found it “… kind of innocent and naive a little bit, but great. Here was a guy in a violent profession saying stop fighting. That contradiction interested me.”
It’s that contradiction that is at the heart of the drama Sheridan and Geoge have crafted here. It is a thoughtful and intelligent take on the sometimes painful and dramatic progress of the peace process in Northern Ireland, which however, lacks some of the focus and tightness of storytelling that distinguished “My Left Foot” and “In The Name of the Father.” The tension that drives the story comes from the split on the republican side over whether to accept the terms being offered by the British to achieve peace, ie decommissioning weapons, etc. Danny (Daniel Day-Lewis), his friend and boxing mentor, Ike Weir (Ken Stott) and Maggie’s father (Brian Cox), an IRA chief, are all on the side of negotiating. They are each, in turn, confronted by Harry (Gerard McSorley), a break away IRA member, in violent episodes meant to sabotage the peace process. In the midst of this political drama, Sheridan works in a love story that is affecting and simply drawn.
Sheridan is ambitious here, attempting to combine what initially seem like too many elements for a small film. He does manage, however, to keep the political story, the love story and finally the boxing narrative of Danny’s attempted career comeback, balanced for most of the film. It is not until well into the last act when Sheridan cuts to Danny’s big fight in a London hotel that the film loses its momentum and bogs down. The London sequence is unnecessary dramatically as it doesn’t show us anything we haven’t already seen in Belfast regarding the peace process. It does, however, allow the filmmaker to make his point about violence by having Danny refuse to keep fighting a man who is clearly in distress. This scene is also an emotional nod to Barry McGuigan (who worked on the film as Daniel Day-Lewis’s trainer). McGuigan relates in an interview on the DVD how, when he was a professional boxer, he had fought a man in London, who had died later of head injuries. As admirable as all of this is, the point has already been made about Danny’s desire to use his boxing skills for peace in the earlier Belfast scenes. The result is that the build up to the final confrontation between Danny and Harry at the end of the film has been crucially interrupted.
Despite this lapse, overall the film works well. As usual Sheridan, and his actors, are wonderful at capturing the nuances of Irish life believably and dramatically. In the extended wedding scene that opens the film or in the depictions of the daily interactions at the Holy Family Boxing Club, the rhythms of language, the pleasures and pressures of family life and social obligations are all caught knowingly, and yet seem completely natural in their context.
The cast is crucial in this process. Daniel Day-Lewis is intense, but quiet, as Danny Flynn, displaying a barely acknowledged sadness just beneath his surface that is moving. This is a man who is aware of what he has lost by virtue of his earlier decisions and has now grown used to being alone. It is easy for us to understand how Danny now only wants to start his life again. As an important part of that new life, Emily Watson, as Maggie, displays a disarming simplicity. Maggie is quiet too, but it is a quiet strength. We come to know that in her world to talk too much is dangerous. Maggie learned long ago how to navigate her way through the byways of a life lived in proximity to violence. Watson lets us know subtly that this endless process, both personal and political, is now wearing her down. As well, she has a nice rapport with Daniel Day-Lewis in their scenes together. Ken Stott, as Danny’s trainer, is memorable as an older man who, like Danny, is desperately trying to begin again but knows the odds are against him.
The original music by Gavin Friday and Maurice Seezer is eery, evocative of tribal chants, mixed with Celtic sounds. The cinematography by Chris Menges has a sometimes strangely blueish tint to it, but is clear and sharp and captures the dark world out of which these characters are struggling to emerge.
The ending of “The Boxer” lacks the joyous completion of “My Left Foot” or the triumphal vindication of “In The Name of the Father.” There is, instead, an air of quiet resolution about it, and the film overall. Nonetheless, “The Boxer” deserves its place alongside these other two excellent films and should be revisited