The Boxer (1997): Part 1 of 2
Director: Jim Sheridan
Writer:Terry George and Jim Sheridan
Cinematographer: Chris Menges
Producer: Arthur Lappin and Jim Sheridan
by Jon Cvack
Jim Sheridan and Daniel Day Lewis teamed up for three films: My Left Foot (1989) where Lewis would win the Oscar and two other politically charged films about the IRA - In the Name of the Father (1993) and The Boxer, with Sheridan continuing the exploration ex-Lewis with Bloody Sunday (2002); the first film I saw of his. Realizing I didn’t even have the guy on my Master List, the reason I’ve been waiting on the film was only to see Daniel Day Lewis. Sheridan’s brutally realistic style is somehow heavier than his action scenes; in no way celebrating or glorifying the violence; portraying a tough and tragic world and that’s the way it’s going to be.
The Boxer provides an equally grim story, offering that strange experience of a first third that left me indifferent about finishing the movie and an ending leading to one of the greatest films I’ve watched all year.
It opens on the marriage of what’s known as a “prisoner’s wife” - a woman who marries an imprisoned IRA terrorist. The ceremony takes place in a British prison, where the groom has to remain and the bride returns to her local pub. Along the way they see a helicopter soaring above, with Sheridan cutting to its POV staring down toward them; at one point showing the fortified border between Ireland and the U.K.
At the party we meet the local IRA leader Joe Hamill (Brian Cox), hidden behind walls blocked with bookcases and plain clothed soldiers in every room. I don’t know much about the history of the IRA, other than that it was their fight for independence from the U.K., focused primarily on religious independence. I’m too ignorant to even take a side, simply knowing it’s complex, but they were an organization that used violent acts of terror to achieve their cause; specifically bombs. In fact, while on a shoot in London, I stayed at the Brighton Hotel where the IRA had allegedly blown up the entire front in an attempt to assassinate Theresa May.
Joe Hamill is currently in secret talks for peace with the British, in which a cease fire will be granted, and possibly an acquiescence of land of sorts (I wasn’t sure about independence). The only point of conflict is that the British won’t release the prisoners, meaning Hamill would have to reach an armistice without any of the husbands going back to the prisoner wives; making the opening ceremony all the more effective, showing us the sacrifice they make in the hopes of reconciliation. In one particular moment, a young man dances with a woman, sticking his hands down the back of her pants when two of the IRA soldiers immediately pull him into the backroom, demanding he never touch a prisoner’s wife again or else. The kid gets the message.
The scene reminded me of Sheridan’s fellow working class Irish filmmaker Ken Loach, who’s Hidden Agenda (1990) also starred Brian Cox, though which he played a British Detective investigating an alleged murder between a spy and an agent. Unfamiliar with the IRA, he soon ends up at a pub, discovering the Irish singing and relaxed atmosphere; countering every idea he had of how they lived.
The Boxer portrays a similar world, built around loyalty and mission. Recently my friends and I discussed the rise of China’s authoritarian capitalism amidst its communist political system. We discussed what made the systems fail to work, and how the issue with political revolutions is that even after the government is overthrown, the most radical members who are willing to destroy anyone for their beliefs are the ones who often succeed, thus introducing totalitarian regimes. They couldn’t trust their former allies, let alone their enemies.
One of Hamill’s lieutenants Harry (Gerard McSorley) is this type of individual; unwilling to compromise on peace, especially if they’re not getting the prisoners in return; determined to spill more bloodshed in vengeance as much as for their mission.
It’s throughout this sequence that former IRA member Danny Flynn (Daniel Day-Lewis) is released from prison after fourteen years. Discovering that the violence has carried on, he attempts to return home, resume boxing, and live a peaceful life. He ends up meeting his blotto former coach Ike (Ken Stott) who’s living on the streets in search of an endless drink. They return to the gym where Danny decides to open up a boxing school for boys. While unpacking the old ring, he finds a bag full of bombs, immediately walking out and tossing them into the river; infuriating Harry and the rest of the crew who demand he get them back.
Joe Hamill’s daughter Maggie (Emily Watson) and Danny immediately exchange glances through their initial reunion; both waiting for the other to speak where we soon learn that they once had been together. In one beautiful scene Maggie and Danny do an elegant dance of subtle exposition, revealing that they might have been together, but being so young and with his arrest so sudden, neither were sure what to make of their relationship. In one particular moment, Danny laughs as he explains how he wished he could have asked her to wait for him; containing all of the anger, jealousy, and regret that only Daniel Day Lewis could possibly convey.
Danny and Ike return to their training regiment, later deciding to have a fight between a Protestant and Catholic boxer, in which all faiths will be allowed to watch, particularly Irish Catholics and British Protestants. Again, Harry is infuriated and attempts to have them call it off. Danny refuses and the event’s packed, and in pure boxer-movie fashion, he loses the fight; embarrassing his people, or so they indicate.
I should note that up until this point of the movie, I was a bit bored; failing to grasp the foundation being laid out. Sheridan wasn’t rushing into plot, so much as allowing us to discover each of the characters, knowing that the last two thirds would play all the better.
Danny isn’t swayed by the reaction and offers to hold another fight. With the British government agreeing, it’s an even bigger event; going so far as to attract a local Police Chief. Danny triumphs in his second spat, but just as he prepares to celebrate we watch as Harry carries out an assassination against the Police Chief; planting a bomb in his car which sets off, killing him and kickstarting a riot.
Continue to Part 2...
BELOW: Nothing else on YouTube so no clip offered
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