In The Land Of Saints And Sinners


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

In The Land Of Saints And Sinners
"With plenty of meat for its fine cast to chew on, the film is often intense but never loses its nuance."

When, in early 2022, Liam Neeson appeared to announce his retirement, there was a general panic amongst his fans. in fact, what he was trying to explain was that he didn’t think he should be in action films anymore because he was on the brink of turning 70 and it seemed faintly ridiculous to him that a man that age would be doing so much running around. Some fans, of course, breathed a sigh of relief, not just because he intended to continue his career but because he might be signalling a return to the type of closely focused character work at which he excelled before Hollywood got a grip on him.

In The Land Of Saints And Sinners is the film those fans have been waiting for. It still has action elements, but they’re approached in a way that is not unrealistic for an older man, and his character, Finbar, is acknowledged as being that age. He’s a highly skilled professional assassin – in Seventies Ireland, when there was plentiful demand for such work – but an incident early on in the story leads to him deciding that it’s time to retire and do something else with his life. A widower, he has a gently romantic relationship with his neighbour, Rita (Niamh Cusack), and he wants to follow in her footsteps by planting a garden in the little Donegal village where they both live.

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There are no shadows from his past here; he’s done his work efficiently. Neither is he persuaded to do one last job, having been sensible with his money. What there is is a local girl (Michelle Gleeson, effortlessly holding her own alongside an impressive adult cast) whom he chats to from time to time and whom he realises is being abused by a man staying at her home. A plan to give the man a scare goes awry, and unluckily for Finbar, he happens to be an IRA operative with a sister (Kerry Condon, also excellent) who will stop at nothing to get revenge.

There’s sterling support here from Colm Meaney as a fixer who organises hits and from Ciarán Hinds as the local garda officer with whom Finbar hangs out in his spare time. Meanwhile, Hinds’ fellow Game Of Thrones alumnus Jack Gleeson plays Kevin, a young up-and-coming assassin who seizes the opportunity to follow Finbar around and try to learn from him, with the older man’s grudging tolerance gradually metamorphosing into affection. There’s an urgency and impulsivity about Kevin which makes him dangerous, but he’s not incapable of feeling, and Finbar hopes to persuade him to do something else with his life. Gleeson makes a good deal out of this challenging role and ably demonstrates that he has more than one string to his bow.

Although the Troubles are present here only as background to the story, there is some material here that people who lived through them may find distressing, particularly in the film’s opening scenes. Mark Michael McNally and Terry Loane’s script does a good job of reckoning with the wider impact of the IRA’s campaign and the mixture of sympathy and fear it inspired in many ordinary people. Finbar has a habit of planting trees on the graves of his victims and although the filmmakers don’t seem to have been aware of how fast pines grow – some of their shots making it look as if he’s pulling off a dozen hits a year – shots which zoom out to reveal the wider forest speak poetically to the sheer number of people who died during that era.

With plenty of meat for its fine cast to chew on, the film is often intense but never loses its nuance. It’s a real return to form for its star, but there are many more reasons to admire it, and it’s another reminder, if we needed one, that present day Irish cinema is among the best in the world.

Reviewed on: 06 Apr 2024
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In The Land Of Saints And Sinners packshot
A retired assassin finds himself drawn into a game of cat and mouse.

Director: Robert Lorenz

Writer: Terry Loane, Mark Michael McNally

Starring: Liam Neeson, Sarah Greene, Kerry Condon, Jack Gleeson, Ciarán Hinds, Conor MacNeill, Colm Meaney, Desmond Eastwood, Seamus O'Hara, Bernadette Carty, James Sadat, Mark O'Regan, Valentine Olukoga, Conor Hamill, James P. McKeever

Year: 2023

Runtime: 106 minutes

Country: Ireland

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