Fifty Dead Men Walking

Fifty Dead Men Walking

***

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

The trouble with films about the Troubles for many, hinges on notions of what is truth and what is fiction. This problem is particularly acute with Kari Skogland's Fifty Dead Men Walking, which claims to be "inspired" by the memoir of Martin McGartland. "Inspired by" is, of course, a long way removed from "based on" since it automatically implies that more liberty will be taken with the source material - and these are liberties McGartland was so unhappy with that, in addition to disowning the movie, he sought to contact critics who wrote reviews of the film when it was first released to make this crystal clear (see, for example, the note at the bottom of Total Film's review). It seems his view must have been tempered somewhat since, however, given the presence of an extract from his book as one of the extras on the DVD release.

Leaving aside the issue of what truly happened, however, it is still possible to take the film on its surface merits as a gritty thriller. The story centres on McGartland - a Jack-the-lad type who, in the Belfast of 1998, makes his cash from petty 'off-the-back-of-a-lorry' door-to-door sales. His inate cheekiness and lack of fear of the IRA catch the eye of a British copper (Ben Kingsley). Unable to reconcile himself with some of the IRA's methods and seeing the opportunity to make a quick buck into the bargain, McGartland becomes a 'tout' - and begins revealing secrets of the IRA operations to the Brits in return for cash.


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The story tracks his rise up the Republican Army's soldiering ranks at the same time as he forms a relationship with Lara (Natalie Press), documenting the divided loyalties of a man caught between two teams, neither of which he wants to root for and the love of his family that he knows face a threat brought about by his line of work.

The result is a mix of high-energy thriller and, somewhat less successful, drama. When the situation is spiralling out of McGartland's control the tension mounts, but a subplot involving a Mata Hari-style flame-haired IRA high-up (Rose McGowan) inexplicably falling for him feels as though it has escaped from a Hollywood action film and adds little to the bloated runtime. There is good evocation of the period, with Eighties Belfast looking almost post-apocalyptic, although the direction is somewhat in your face, as Skogland switches colour palettes with almost every scene and drenches much of the action in hyperactive scoring.

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What makes the film so compelling, however, are the performances. Jim Sturgess is an actor firmly on the up. He sports a highly-convincing - at least to a non-native - Belfast accent and invests McGartland with the perfect combination of cockiness and fear, to help the audience stick with him even though he's no angel. It's nice to see Kinglsey in a lower-key role for a change and here he delivers an understated performance - reminiscent of Ken Stott - that is a welcome relief after some of his more manic choices of late. Press - so good in Red Road - again proves she can master any accent and, though having less screen time than almost all the other characters, still manages to make a lasting impression.

Despite trying a little too hard to be cool and edgy, this is nevertheless an entertaining thriller with a decent twist, which though rather simplistic in its presentation of the macro politics of the time perfectly captures the micro politics facing everyday people, just trying to get on.

Reviewed on: 14 Sep 2009
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A man works his way up the ranks of the IRA... while informing for the British.
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Director: Kari Skogland

Writer: Nicholas Davies, Martin McGartland, Kari Skogland

Starring: Jim Sturgess, Ben Kingsley, Natalie Press, Kevin Zegers, Rose McGowan, Tom Collins, William Houston, Michael McElhatton, Gerard Jordan, David Pearse, Joe Doyle, Conor MacNeill

Year: 2008

Runtime: 117 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: UK, Canada

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