Eye For Film >> Movies >> The Boxer (1997) Film Review
Reviewed by: Angus Wolfe Murray
Not since Ken Loach's Hidden Agenda has a movie about Northern Ireland hit so hard. Brian Cox was in that, too, playing a policeman. Here he is Joe Hamill, an IRA don, tentatively moving in the direction of peace, as watchful as an old lion, his face etched with the emotional scars of 25 years at the frontline. After the romantic fiction of Ulster freedom fighters, Hollywood style - Brad Pitt (The Devil's Own), Richard Gere (The Jackal) - Jim Sheridan portrays a society tortured by its history, paranoid, moralistic and ruthless.
Amongst Joe's lieutenants are those who look upon negotiation as weakness. The power struggle has a pathological intensity. All things are political. Even boxing. Danny Flynn (Daniel Day-Lewis) is released from prison after 14 years. He was never a hardline IRA foot soldier, rather he drifted into it at a bad time and was left to take the rap when a job went wrong. His girl, Maggie (Emily Watson), Joe's daughter, marries his best friend, who is still in jail. They have a son. Danny's talent is boxing. He has kept himself fit and now, at 32, sees this as his ticket to something better.
Maggie's marriage was a non-starter, or so she believes. Her love for Danny remains the same and his for her. However hard they try, they cannot avoid each other. Danny has changed. "You used to talk to me," Maggie says. "You used to make me laugh." Now everything is internalised, the feelings, the anger, the lost years. To be seen together carries enormous risks. Socialising with prisoners' wives on any level other than platonic friendship is a kneecapping offence. Or worse.
If you don't know the background, you might wonder what those soldiers in armoured cars and helicopters are doing. Are they fighting the Catholics, the Prots or both? Why are the police so distrusted? Unlike George's directorial debut, "Some Mother's Son", about Bobby Sands and the hunger strikers, there is no feeling that this is propaganda masquerading as entertainment. Francis Ford Coppola showed the way with The Godfather. Don't explain. A favourite phrase is, "What are you talking about?" No-one says what they mean. If they do - and some do - they are in danger of being found on waste ground in the morning with a hole in the head.
Conversations are coded. This community, mostly Catholic and proud, is caught between the devil and the devil's shadow. There is nowhere to run. Sheridan's Belfast is like Mostar. The heavy mob rule. If you don't like it, or believe in bringing the warring factions together, watch your back.
There are two separate stories interlinked by blood, Danny's and Joe's. Danny finds his old trainer, Ike Weir (unforgettable performance from Ken Stott), in a shelter for the homeless. Together they reinstate the gym that had been such a symbol of hope for the kids in the old days. Joe tells Maggie that if she continues with Danny, he cannot protect her any longer. What worries him as much is the murmuring discontent from those in his ranks who would rather kill a good cop than condone a compromise. It is not anarchy, rather a refusal to accept the concept of choice.
The film has the courage of its conviction. There is uncertainty in every nook and waste bin. Brave men die. Is it worth it? Has morality changed? What is morality? The language of the repressed has a small vocabulary and no words for "love is all I need. "
Day-Lewis has become the filmmakers' film actor. His dedication to the spirit of a role knows no bounds. He spent three years training with Barry McGuigan to perfect his ring skills and brings to Danny so much more than stiff-lipped heroics. This is acting on the edge, so close to the engine, it burns. Watson, fresh from her triumph in Breaking The Waves, is sensual and strong. Maggie is her father's daughter and Watson makes you believe it. Cox has been here before in a different guise. He is such an intelligent actor, he couldn't play safe if he tried. Sheridan (My Left Foot, In The Name Of The Father) doesn't play safe either. Not this time.Reviewed on: 19 Jan 2001