Political thriller stirs the murky stew of 'Father'-son relationships

January 21, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Yeats, an Irishman himself, said it best: "The worst are full of passionate intensity." So it was in 1974 when the worst of the Irish -- IRA terrorists -- detonated a bomb in a British pub killing five people. And so it was that the worst of the English -- the Security Services -- reacted savagely with laws suppressing individual rights, which permitted them to sweep up in a sloppy but vast net virtually anyone with a brogue.

One such was a flaky youth named Gerry Conlon, then 20, a Belfast refugee who was quickly browbeaten into confession and spent the next 15 years in dismal British prisons. If that weren't enough woe dumped on the poor Conlon clan, it soon followed that Gerry's father, Giuseppe, a gentle, non-political man who only yearned to save his wayward son, was swept up in the next vast and sloppy net, convicted on similarly flimsy evidence and ultimately languished in the same cell.

That's the story the Irish writer-director Jim Sheridan (of "My Left Foot") has chosen to tell in "In the Name of the Father." But the muckraking, socio-political ramifications of the events are only part of it. Sheridan is also interested in the whole dank and musty thing between fathers and sons, and uses the crucible of the real to penetrate its darkness.

In fact, in psychic terms, the whole piece is a meditation on sons and fathers, both actual and metaphorical. Certainly one meaning of the title is that the state is the father and in its name are the most horrific things done; the other meaning is that in the name of the father -- his own dear, sweet and ultimately respected one -- will Gerry seek and achieve some form of redemption for the sins of stupidity, disrespect and callowness.

So Sheridan's film is part Costa-Gavras-style political thriller, plunging to the heart of a conspiracy much in the way of the long ago classic "Z," and it's part exploration of the inner landscape of men. The prison is a prison, and it's also a state of mind in which fathers and sons axiomatically loathe each other -- remember your "Oedipus Rex"? -- yet somehow manage to reconcile over the long years.

As might be expected, with a plate so full, the movie feels somewhat crowded. Its biggest disappointment is the underutilization of Emma Thompson, who is billed as a co-star but appears more in a cameo role as the British lawyer who labors long and mightily in Gerry's behalf and ultimately uncovers the evidence that will free him (the movie's best scene). She's not really a character so much as an icon of British liberalism. What drives her, who is she, where is she from, where is she going? -- the movie doesn't answer because it doesn't ask.

That leaves Sheridan's re-creation of the Conlon saga as physical ordeal and he's terrifyingly immediate, whether re-creating a spontaneous riot breaking out in the Belfast slums when the young and ignorant Gerry heaves rocks at Brit troopers, or the oppressive immensity of the prison experience, particularly as it envelopes a new boy.

Daniel Day-Lewis plays Gerry in what might be regarded as a sneaky-great performance. It's certain that he's not trying to consolidate the image of hero conjured up in "Last of the $H Mohicans," for his Gerry is a dithering '70s lout, a petty thief and layabout, with no goals other than the stimulation of his pleasure centers. He gads about in those utterly stupid '70s duds looking more like an embryonic Howard Stern than anything human. The British break this butterfly on the wheel rather snappily.

But they cannot break his father. The true moral center of the film is offered by a little-known British actor named Pete Postlethwaite, who plays Giuseppe. It may take a while for Gerry to figure it out, but Giuseppe is the very essence of masculine decency: unbroken and steady, he works to get himself but primarily his son out of the maw.

The movie is almost conducted at points like a debate on masculinity. At one time, Gerry is drawn to a tough IRA warrior deposited in the prison, who seems to offer a more "heroic" response to oppression. But it's exactly that kind of heroism that conceals the will to do dreadful violence that was behind the forces that sent Gerry to the slammer.

As the years draw on, "In the Name of the Father" acquires almost unbearable poignancy. A bit unfocused, it makes two points powerfully: that even democracies temporarily lose their minds when pressured by criminal elements, and find it too easy to give in to the totalitarian temptation. Are you listening, America? And, secondly, that father may not know best, but he knows something. How else did he get so old?

"In the Name of the Father"

Starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Pete Postlethwaite

Directed by Jim Sheridan

Released by Universal

Rated R

*** 1/2

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