It was several hours after attending the advance preview screening of Fifty Dead Men Walking, which was followed by a Q &A with director Kari Skogland, that I realised I'd actually already read the book by Martin McGartland, on which the film is based.
It's not hard to see why I should have failed to recognise the story on screen from the book I'd read earlier, despite the huge impact the book had on me at the time I read it. The film starts with McGartland (Jim Sturgess) in an anonymous location on a snowy day, checking underneath his worn-out old car for the signs of anything unusual - a bomb perhaps? As he tries to start the engine a black balaclava'ed figures appears from nowhere, shooting him several times at point-blank range. The scene itself isn't fictional, but is nowhere to be found in the book. It, or something very similar to it, happened AS A RESULT OF McGartland publishing his 'tell all' book, which apparently pissed the IRA off even more than his working for them as a 'tout' for the RUC had done.
As the film tells us in its closing titles (spoiler alert!), McGartland is still under cover and still has no contact with his family.
At the Q&A that followed last night's Southbank screening, the writer/director revealed that although she spoke to the IRA 'tout' long and often, and also changed some things as a result of his input, contact was always by phone calls which he controlled, and had to be at his behest. So there is no happy 'reunited with his family' ending here for those who like their films happy and smiley!
After the opening 'grab their attention' attempted assassination, the remainder of the film tells a fictionalised account of McGartland's involvement with the IRA and the RUC from its logical beginning, starting in 1987 and ending around 1991. It bears little relation to the strong memories I have of the main character's real life which seemed to comprise never-ending periods of boredom and poverty, alleviated by sudden explosions of activity and a great deal of hatred.
Essentially, this is a story of an RUC informer ('tout' as the IRA call them)working his way up the IRA ranks so he can feed information to the British - information that, it is claimed, saved the lives of the 'fifty men' of the title. But it feels like a very different story from that told in the book: A sanitised one in many ways (which, I suspect, will shock those who haven't read the book because this is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a Hollywood film or anything approaching it!) The McGartland of the book came across as a much harder, angrier, less sympathetic person, and the intrinsic evil of the IRA (and to a much lesser extent the British puppet-masters) seeped from every page.
In Skogland's film McGartland becomes the cheery everyman, a sort of Irish version of the young Paul McCartney (hard to get the actor Jim Sturgess' previous work in the Beatles musical Across The Universe out of my head!), a sort of 'street urchin with a good heart who stands by his girl'. More importantly, the film tries to tow an independent, 'fair-minded to both sides' line, which doesn't really work given the inherently violent and controlling methods of the IRA at the time. The approach adopted makes the film seem a lot less political, and perhaps more personal, than the book so it's not hard to see why McGartland may be upset. The director has made a film 'for our times', with particular relevance to the situations in Agfhanistan and Iraq, so that suddenly the story in the book that had me thinking 'Thank God I'm nowhere near that barbaric mess and wasn't involved' has me thinking 'Maybe it's not that barbaric and could happen anywhere'
In the Q & A session with the director afterwards, McGartland's presence (not physically - he's still in hiding) seemed to dominate the proceedings. The interviewer's opening question revealed that McGartland had been somewhat 'grumpy' about the film to the press, and a quick search on the internet shows him contacting even the likes of the rather innocuous Empire magazine to complain that he does not endorse the film in any way. The director seemed cagey whenever the subject was brought up (as it was, repeatedly, by people wanting to better understand what the source of disagreements was), but it was hard to ascertain who, if anyone, was in the right here. A quick 'Google' has Sturgess revealing that McGartland was apparently unhappy with the IRA torture scene, which he never witnessed in real life, and at the Q&A the director just kept to the 'a book does not necessarily make a good film' storyline. Clearly the rather heavy-handed disclaimer about the film merging characters and depicting some events differently, which appears at the start AND end of the film is the result of McGartland's intercession and a (failed) attempt to placate him somewhat. (You can read more about McGarttlan's objections to the film and its director here)
None of which really matters, given how powerful and gripping the film is! A 'based on truth' thriller, with real flesh-and-blood characters (no blacks or whites here - just LOTS of shades of grey) is preferable to a documentary version of the original book (which I highly recommend!).
Skogland has produced a gritty, grungey, powerful and deeply impressive film that manages to shake off the rather obvious shortcomings of its first 5-10 minutes, such that you're gripped and sat on the edge of your seat right to the conclusion two hours later. Admittedly the film is not an easy watch in places. It clearly has 'indy' origins (no glossy '3D window look' Blu-Ray on its way here!) and I thought it got off to a poor start as soon as the 'reel 'em in' assassination attempt opening was over. I've never been a fan of the Paul Greengrass school of wobbly, hand-held, puke-making cam that we get in abundance here. Nor am I a huge fan of the 'bleach' process that highlights the whites and the blacks at the expense of colour or lack of film grain, but at least this time around it's somewhat more warranted, matching the gritty and dark story being told. At the end of the day it's the performances, and the sheer humanity of those caught up in events, rather than the technical aspects of the film that stay with you long after the final credits have rolled.
(Sir) Ben Kingsley may be a bit of an up-himself knob-head in real life (he comes across that way in interviews!), but you can't deny the guy can really act, and the few reviews I've read sniping at his performance here as McGartland's British 'handler with a conscience' can only be based on personal grievances with the actor himself. His performance is never less than rivetting and totally believable. From any other actor this would be considered a 'career best', but Kingsley's work is of such high calibre that one can only revel at the fact he's managed to use his incredible, chameleon-like qualities for totally transforming himself into another character yet again.
But it's Jim Sturgess, fighting against all the 'just a pretty face' odds, who delivers the most surprising, and most impressive, performance. It's no surprise to hear that he stayed in character from the moment he landed on the Emerald Isle. His accent is, to these ears, pretty flawless, and his performance as a difficult, duplicitous, dishonest character that we have to somehow empathise with is never less than convincing. This is, in many ways, HIS film even more than it is Skogland's. If he can steer clear of being the 'pretty boy flavour of the month' with the film magazines and continue to make wise choices, as he appears to be doing, he could become a huge talent in the industry rather than just another graduate from the Orlando Bloom school of (non-) acting!
As for the film itself - my quibbles are minor. I love punk bands like Stiff Little Fingers (and The Ruts too - my era! Oh, the memories!) - but not when they're so dominant in the mix I can't hear the dialogue. And I know it's all about a documentary-like, gritty feel, but at times the Greengrass-influenced shakycam goes too far. And the intro and outro captions seem rather preachy and trite (this may be at McGartland's insistence of course).
But on an evening when I felt so shattered I nearly gave the film a miss, I found myself wide awake and enthralled throughout.
The director has made it clear that this opening weekend will 'do or die' for the film - especially its chances of getting a release in the United States, urging those who liked the film to 'tell their friends to go and see it, preferably this weekend'. I have no hesitation in doing so. It's a powerful, absorbing and compelling piece of work. We need more films of this sort of calibre (although whoever's behind the marketing of the film could surely have done a better job - where's the 'official' web site with images etc to decorate this blog entry?!).
Ignore some of the pettier newspaper reviews (whose research is so poor they think the director is male) that imply the film is merely 'average'. It isn't! They are confusing the film with an event (20 years of Irish politics) and marking the film accordingly. Just go and see it. It's an excellent, powerful movie, and much better than anything else I can see advertised this weekend. Highly recommended!