Emotional In America

Irish director Jim Sheridan reached deep inside for his masterpiece


January 04, 2004|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,Sun Movie Critic

WASHINGTON -- Irish writer, producer and director Jim Sheridan was born in Dublin and began his career as a leader of that city's alternative theater, but New York is central to his life, too. He had his third daughter there as he tried to make a dent in the stage scene, serving as artistic director of the Irish Arts Center and for a short time studying at the New York University film school. With that experience under his belt, he went back to Ireland and became a world-class moviemaker. His directorial debut, My Left Foot (1989), the poignant and rambunctious story of palsied writer Christy Brown, won an Academy Award for Daniel Day-Lewis.

Sheridan, 54, also happens to be "official" Maryland's favorite filmmaker. Last year at the Maryland Film Festival, guest host Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. chose and introduced his bristling 1993 drama, In the Name of the Father, starring Day-Lewis as a man wrongly accused of IRA terrorism and Pete Postlethwaite as the father he bonds with after both wind up in a prison cell. During the 2001 festival, Baltimore's Mayor Martin O'Malley expounded on his selection of the haunting Sheridan-written fable Into The West (1992), about two boys who gallop away from a dreary Dublin home on a white horse. O'Malley also spoke at a screening in 2002 of the Sheridan-produced Bloody Sunday, a terrifying docudrama about the killing of 13 civilians and the wounding of 14 others during a civil-rights protest in Derry, Northern Ireland, on Jan. 30, 1972.

It's quite a record for Sheridan, a man from a country with a tiny movie industry. But meeting him in person in a Washington hotel room, you realize he has all the gifts to galvanize seat-of-the-pants troupes into crack artistic companies. It takes only a minute to perceive that underneath his twinkling surface he has wells of diverse feelings to draw on for his tender and tumultuous tales. He's a raconteur and provocateur, a psychologist and shaman.

He's just the fellow you'd imagine would create a deceptively casual powerhouse like his latest movie, the semi-autobiographical saga In America, about an Irish family illegally immigrating to New York and finding new resilience as they adjust to Hell's Kitchen. In some ways, it's the movie you'd expect an artist like Sheridan to come out with first -- the one that explains the roots of his restless energy and empathy. But if he'd created it 15 years ago, he might not have had the mature wizardry to make it what it is today: a masterpiece.

Immigrant family

While Johnny (Paddy Considine), Sheridan's semi-surrogate, aims to break through as an actor, his former teacher wife, Sarah (Samantha Morton), slings ice cream and his two young daughters, Christy (Sarah Bolger) and Ariel (Emma Bolger), make the best of their drug-infested tenement. Together, they face unresolved feelings of guilt and grief over the death of the one boy in the family, Frankie. Their grimy brave new world, New York, with its crazy cultural electricity, helps them do that. So does a turbulent African artist-neighbor named Mateo (Djimon Hounsou).

Sheridan dedicates the movie to the memory of Frankie Sheridan, who in real life was his younger brother, not his son. "He fell down stairs, he got a tumor and then he died," Sheridan says of Frankie. "And here's the weird thing. When he fell down the stairs, he was all black and blue, and he looked much worse than when he died from a secret tumor in his brain. I came home at dinner hour when he fell and saw my mother upset, looking at him, waiting on the ambulance. Years later, I remembered how afraid I was of what had happened to him, and also how affected I was when my mother was looking at him with the way she had looked at me as a young child. At the time, I thought the two of them were like the Pieta, though I didn't know the name of the statue then. Long afterward, I realized I was the one who had turned into a statue. It was like, you lose your brother, you lose yourself. And you want to be him because he's getting this adored feeling that you remember."

In the opening scene of In America, immigration officers let Johnny into the country because the officers comprehend the family's grief for a dead child. For Sheridan, this emotional wound parallels the persecution and starvation that catalyzed emigrants from Ireland and all over Europe in past centuries. "And if you don't recognize that this is part of the ontology of America -- if you don't believe millions of Europeans came to America because of that -- then you're not going to believe in this scene and this film."

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