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Getting into a World of Troubles

Fifty Dead Men Walking (2009)

Whistler Film Festival

I’m an American who lived in Belfast for a year, and in that year met my husband. The whole of his family lives in Northern Ireland, and our circle of friends in London includes several from Northern Ireland. None of them are "political" – i.e., with direct involvement to paramilitary activity – although some do have family relationships or unwise connections from their youth, which they prefer not to discuss. Most of them recoil in horror at the thought of perpetuating the traditional nationalist-unionist struggle or indeed prejudice of any kind, although some are less enlightened. But regardless of their political outlook, religious belief, class, or personal experience of the Troubles, every last one of them I know from Northern Ireland adheres to the code: “Whatever you say, say nothing.” Everyone, but everyone, hates a grass.

Martin McGartland (Jim Sturgess) was a grass to the nth degree. He was a sworn member of the IRA before he was 20 – essentially equivalent to a "made man" in the Mafia. Simultaneously, he worked as an informant for Special Branch – the notorious anti-terrorism arm of the British police, which works under the aegis of the local police, but is in effect like the FBI. Fergus (Ben Kingsley), his future handler, spots him fencing stolen goods in an IRA neighborhood and realizes that someone this fearless could be a worthwhile informant. Martin is arrested on spurious charges so Fergus can sound him out, and eventually the two men arrive at a close understanding, with Martin feeding up information and Fergus making requests for more.

The pressure and relentlessness of this double life is best depicted when Martin is at the bedside of his teenage partner Lara (Nathalie Press) as she recovers from giving birth to their son. Martin watches her sleep from the hospital hallway, and is surprised by Fergus coming to help him wet the baby’s head. They drink tea laced with whiskey and chat in the doorway until Sean (Kevin Zegers) – a childhood friend of Martin’s also in the IRA – arrives to see the baby. Fergus walks off mid-sentence as Martin must greet his friend without raising suspicion.

The Troubles are starting to recede in Northern Ireland – the horror of the Omagh bomb and the removal of grassroot American support since 9/11 have forced the paramilitaries to negotiate with ballots, not bullets. The current major local political issue is the attempt to begin billing people for water, which has traditionally been free. Things are changing, and movies such as this one, Steve McQueen’s “Hunger” and Richard Attenborough’s “Closing the Ring” are among the first to address the Troubles in this context of a changed world.

Of all of the films about the Troubles, this one provides perhaps the most concise explanation and context of events, via a voiceover by Mr. Kingsley over archival news footage. Martin and Lara’s attempts to begin their life together are a universally-recognizable depiction of a relationship in which the baby has come before the parents truly know each other, not helped by their lack of money. The early-'80s period decor by production designer Eve Stewart is spot-on, especially the Blondie poster in Lara’s kitchen. The dampness and greyness of the Northern Irish weather permeates the film, with blurred images and bright lights recurring, as if we were watching it through foggy glasses. This desaturated look, as shot by cinematographer Jonathan Freeman, seems oddly appropriate, although the rooftop scene on the Europa Hotel is completely ridiculous. Everyone’s accents are faultless – a major achievement with an accent as difficult as the Ulster one – although other reviews have complained they are so difficult for the American ear that subtitles are essential.

Mr. Sturgess greatly impressed; he’s had significant roles in “21” and “Across the Universe” and should be able to continue to build on his troubled, likably vulnerable performance in this film. Ms. Press co-starred with Emily Blunt in “My Summer of Love” and has since remained in Britain working in interesting small-budget films, most notably “Red Road.” There’s something about her – she plays hugely vulnerable characters with a hint of steel in them, a fascinating and utterly watchable contradiction. Mr. Kingsley has recently begun playing paterfamilias roles; his Fergus is a less psychotic and more admirable version of his character in “The Wackness.” He has made a commitment to Martin and will be damned before he betrays that trust, regardless of the cost. Mr. Kingsley has always been an interesting actor, but he has only recently become a likable one.

However some of director Kari Skogland’s choices do not work so well. She chose to film on location in Belfast, a city which has changed almost beyond recognition in the last 10 years. In order to maintain the period image, most shots are claustrophobically tight to try to keep out the new construction projects, billboards and graffiti, which lately have sprung up everywhere. This did not wholly succeed, which makes for some jarring moments. Perhaps the sense of claustrophobia is meant to mirror Martin’s situation, but it prevents the audience from gaining a greater perspective of the people involved and their city. It also prevents the climactic ending from making its true, deserved impact.

Not only the title of the film is derivative, characters are introduced with their name and position, whether in the IRA or police force, popping up onscreen in the style of a TV documentary. The scenes of sex, torture and violence are forthright, but restrained in a way which reminded one of “Hotel Rwanda” (the director of which, Terry George, is also from Northern Ireland); you see enough that you can picture the rest. I can imagine my teenage nieces and nephews watching this in school, which I am not sure is a compliment. But unlike “Hotel Rwanda,” there is no uplifting ending.

The end is also followed by one of the largest disclaimers in memory. It makes it perfectly clear that the real Mr. McGartland and the co-author of his memoir, Nicholas Davies, have no connection whatsoever to the film, which is furthermore not based upon this book. Mr. McGartland tried to block release of the film and clearly it’s only been allowed to be distributed on condition of this disclaimer. It makes one wonder why Ms. Skogland chose to make the film over the objections of the person whose story she is telling.

The problem with “Fifty Dead Men Walking” is the contradiction of its own terms. It’s the story of a man who "betrayed" his community to save the lives of people in the other community, but the film doesn’t quite seem to know whether or not this was the right thing to do. (Please note that no one in “Fifty Dead Men Walking” talks about patriotism, or serving the public, or the greater interest. It’s about protecting your community – a phrase spoken in different contexts by the head of Martin’s IRA squad and a RUC policeman – and the members of that community. This is accurate language for the Northern Ireland of the time, and one of the major mindsets that people are attempting to change.) Should Martin be celebrated for saving possibly 50 lives, or excoriated for providing information that led to the deaths of people within his community, even though those people are explicitly identified as terrorists? It is surprising that the film does not seem to know.

Its world premiere at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival was marred by comments by Rose McGowan, who has a small but essential part, justifying the violence used by the IRA. The producers immediately issued a press release distancing themselves from her thoughtless statement, in which Ms. Skogland said, “Our goal was to present an even, nonjudgmental point of view so the audience could follow the path of an informer with empathy no matter what the politics.” It's still unsure whether Ms. Skogland believes Mr. McGartland did the right thing. If she does not, then he is right to try and prevent her from releasing the film. If she does, then her failure to say so is shameful pandering to the people who want Mr. McGartland dead.

I really disliked McQueen’s “Hunger,” but at least it left you in no doubt where its sympathies were. What's troubling is the recent trend of movies to purport to be nonjudgmental when dealing with difficult topics. Being able to see both sides of an argument is not the same thing as having no opinion about it. And in life, as in art, we have to make difficult choices which have consequences. The real Mr. McGartland was brave enough to put his life on the line for something he believed in. In making a film about a real person’s choices, Ms. Skogland should have been brave enough to say whether or not she agreed with them. By saying nothing, she says more than she seems to be aware.


Opens on Aug. 21 in New York and on April 10 in Britain.

Written, produced and directed by Kari Skogland; based on a book by Martin McGartland and Nicholas Davies; released by Phase 4 Films (United States) and Metrodome Distribution (Britain). Running time: 1 hour 57 minutes. This film is rated R by M.P.A.A. and 15 by B.B.F.C.

WITH: Jim Sturgess (Martin McGartland), Ben Kingsley (Fergus), Kevin Zegers (Sean), Natalie Press (Lara), Tom Collins (Mikey) and Rose McGowan (Grace).


Any idea how well it follows the book? Does it do a pretty good job of following it, or is it only loosely based on the book?

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