The Ring of Truth Review: In 'The Boxer,' Daniel Day-Lewis and director Jim Sheridan have another powerful film about 'The Troubles' in Northern Ireland.

January 09, 1998|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

Partway through "The Boxer," amateur fighter Danny-Boy Flynn, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, is engaged in a crucial boxing match in Belfast. Not only has the fight become a political metaphor, but it is also a means by which Danny-Boy might seduce a former girlfriend, who sits in the gallery. During the triumphant bout, while the steam and beery cheers of the audience rise, Danny-Boy shoots her a glance captured in a camera flash.

It passes in a nanosecond, but that one look -- fierce, glittering, animal -- is a defining moment in "The Boxer," a fine new film from director and co-writer Jim Sheridan. It's an electrifying example of Day-Lewis' formidable, almost elemental, power as an actor. And it speaks volumes about the film's inscrutable lead character, letting us know that beneath Danny-Boy's cipher-like pacifism and hooded guardedness lurks a man who could kill for the things he loves.

Whether it will come to that is another story, one that Sheridan tells with economy, authenticity and gripping emotion.

"The Boxer" is a fictional tale loosely based on the life of boxing champion Barry McGuigan. It looks at contemporary Ireland and its internecine struggle, known as "The Troubles," with a muted, almost gentle eye. There is none of the incendiary rage that inspired and was inspired by Sheridan and Day-Lewis' last collaboration, "In the Name of the Father" (this is their third film).

That film, which documented the true-life story of four Irishmen wrongly imprisoned by the British, derived its power from righteous indignation. "The Boxer" turns its gaze to an Ireland as edgy and uneasy on the cusp of peace as it has been in war.

Danny-Boy Flynn was imprisoned 14 years ago as an Irish Republican Army member, but during his incarceration he repented and took up boxing -- the ordered, honorable form of violence that he eschewed for political terrorism as a teen-ager.

We meet Danny-Boy upon his release and his re-entry to his Belfast neighborhood, where he is a pariah for quitting the IRA. He sets up a gym with his former, now-alcoholic coach (Ken Stott) and gets back in touch with his old girlfriend, Maggie (Emily Watson of "Breaking the Waves"), whose husband -- Danny-Boy's best friend -- is serving his own time as a "prisoner of war."

Although Danny-Boy's attempts at pugilistic detente are well-timed with a peace pact between Northern Ireland and Britain, militant forces within the IRA, as well as Maggie's own father (Brian Cox), threaten to make any sort of reconciliation -- personal or political -- fruitless.

"The Boxer" has the same assurance and stylistic integrity as Sheridan's previous work, but it also represents a slight change in direction: Whereas both "My Left Foot" (for which Day-Lewis won an Oscar as the artist Christy Brown) and "In the Name of the Father" had purposeful narratives, "The Boxer" has a more desultory tone.

This seems altogether fitting for a country in which literally anything can happen any time. Danny-Boy might win a fight or he might lose; the Catholics and Protestants may find peace or continue to torment one another; Danny-Boy and Maggie might get together or succumb to the forces that militate against them.

Day-Lewis, who trained with McGuigan for two years before filming "The Boxer," has undergone yet another physical transformation to play Danny-Boy; in this case he seems to have elongated into a lithe, magnetic cord of muscle, at once smoldering and supremely self-contained. Day-Lewis uses his body, rather than his declamatory gifts, to convey the idea of Danny-Boy, whose time in prison was spent in concentration and physical discipline and, therefore, in silence.

The ethereal Emily Watson, who brought so much talent to bear on the otherwise execrable "Breaking the Waves," is again luminous here; she and Day-Lewis make an attractive, believable romantic pair as the Romeo and Juliet of their district. And hers is an essential role in "The Boxer," which explains how wives of political prisoners have been made part of the symbolic rhetoric of resistance in Northern Ireland.

Brian Cox brings his usual measure of muscular gravitas to the role of an IRA leader making peace with the idea of peace. His face and bearing suggest years of hard-won wisdom and the heaviness of regret.

"The Boxer" is a film of few words but pure action: As Danny-Boy goes about rebuilding his life in Belfast, we watch him do it rather than listen to him make speeches about doing it. It's a dogged, unsentimental and dignified form of cinematic storytelling that feels like something of a downer compared to the narrative snap and unambiguous endings we've come to expect from Hollywood.

Precisely because it lacks bombast -- not to mention cheap sentiment, cant and pretension -- "The Boxer" makes its mark as a quietly powerful contender.

'The Boxer'

Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Emily Watson

Directed by Jim Sheridan

Released by Universal Pictures

Rated R (language and some violence)

Sun score:***

Pub Date: 1/09/98

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