Inside the ring that is Northern Ireland

Troubles and love mix it up in an underdog movie


May 05, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Complexity within simplicity: that's what The Boxer gloriously achieved and what audiences and critics failed to appreciate five years ago. Directed by Jim Sheridan, written by Sheridan and Terry George and starring Daniel Day Lewis - the same team that gave us In the Name of the Father in 1993 - The Boxer ranks with Carol Reed's wrenching, masterly Odd Man Out as a profound tale of the Irish Troubles. And as a contemporary romance, it is peerless.

It's an ideal choice for the Maryland Film Festival's "Critical Advocacy Program" - an honor bestowed every year on unjustly neglected work. With Day Lewis as a former IRA soldier who has sworn off violence (at least outside the boxing ring), the movie couldn't be more topical. But for all its political savvy, its power transcends politics.

Viewers who wander in are apt to be mesmerized. An adult love story forms its core: in this film, sexuality and spirituality can't be separated. The heroine (Emily Watson) has a grip on her man not because of her high-quality pheromones but because she holds the key to his soul. And the villain is not a British soldier or a cop but an extremist member of the IRA. The hero is a slugger for peace.

Day Lewis' boxer, Danny Flynn, mirrors all those American-movie loners who roam into a booby-trapped situation, and then defuse or settle it - and leave. He's the lean, alert, solitary figure who strides boldly through the streets while people on either side try to take his measure. In American films like Shane, the loner is apt to be the new guy in town, unattached and unencumbered.

The role of the land

What's different about The Boxer - what makes it searingly romantic and mature and real - is that when Danny hits town, he's really coming home. He was a Belfast champion whose fleeting involvement with the IRA landed him in stir for 14 years and separated him from his true love, Maggie (Watson), the daughter of an IRA leader (Brian Cox). Danny leaves terrorism to his old mates and reopens a nonsectarian boxing club with his now-alcoholic ex-manager (Ken Stott).

Danny makes himself a stranger, but he's struggling to build a community he can believe in, not to fix things up and go. Sadly, Maggie has become a moral-political show wife for an imprisoned IRA soldier. Her marriage was empty before her husband went to jail, but she's a role model for wives who must stay faithful to IRA spouses behind bars. When Danny rekindles their tender feelings, he antagonizes militants who are already gunning for him because he brings Protestants and Catholics together in the ring. The movie constantly evokes the phrase Marcel Ophuls used as the title of his epic Northern Ireland documentary, A Sense of Loss. It's replete with poignant vignettes, like a roll call for dead veterans of the boxing club, and turbulent moments of truth, like a rematch between Danny and a Protestant fighter that triggers a horrific act of terrorism. Yet in its rugged gentleness and tactile physicality, the picture The Boxer most resembles isn't In the Name of the Father (another Sheridan-George-Day Lewis collaboration) but My Left Foot - Sheridan and Day Lewis' salute to the cerebral palsy-afflicted writer and painter Christy Brown. Sheridan once again helps Day Lewis explore a man of temperament, shaping the movie around the actor's undiluted sensibility. Once again, they succeed in making the interior exterior, especially in the matter-of-fact poetry of the boxing matches, which are more about reconnecting with humanity than landing punches.

Skilled actors

Day Lewis goes way beyond drawing a skillful portrait of a principled, competent individual: he expresses the rigorous beauty of principle and competence. Everything Day Lewis does keys the viewer into Danny's internal drama, from the utter efficiency of his sinewy body to the focus and intensity of each freighted glance. Danny takes satisfaction from discipline, but with his tamped-down looks and occasional bursts of anger and affection, Day Lewis also signals the sacrifices it exacts in energy, humor and passion. Danny becomes that rarity in movies: a noble character. Day Lewis persuades you that his desire to reunite with Maggie isn't just a want, but a necessity.

And Watson gives this rueful woman a fierce yet restrained hunger all her own. As Danny treads the Belfast streets, she's dynamically watchful: Her huge, beaming eyes are like diving pools, reflecting and enlarging entire scenes. With little more than clandestine conversations capped by one long kiss, she and Day Lewis fashion a contemporary chivalric romance. He's thirsting for love, but won't push it: she's in as much danger as he is, and, with a son, has more to lose. He once made the mistake of thinking for both of them, going off to jail without discussing their future, as if they had none. He won't repeat that error. Together, Maggie and Danny decide to be lovers.

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