Jim Sturgess can't believe the rug Ben Kingsley is wearing.
(IFC) Jim Sturgess, Ben Kingsley, Kevin Zegers, Natalie Press, Rose McGowan, Tom Collins, William Houston, Michael McElhatton, Gerard Jordan. Directed by Kari Skogland
It is said in any war that information is the most potent weapon. Make no mistake about it, the Irish Troubles were most certainly war, even if the British didn’t recognize it as such; in retrospect, in every other significant way they did treat it as war, nonetheless.
Martin McGartland (Sturgess) is a small-time petty criminal in Belfast, selling stolen brassieres door-to-door. He has a kind of elfin charm that others may possess but the Irish have perfected; a kind of roguish crooked charisma that is endearing, like a naughty child you can’t help but smile at even as they’re munching on the cookie they just pilfered.
He’s not particularly fond of the British but he likes the IRA even less after they break the legs of his mate Sean (Zegers). Still, he has no intention of getting involved until he gets nicked by the police. He is given into the hands of British Army intelligence officer Fergus (Kingsley) who recognizes McGartland’s innate talent to inspire trust. McGartland agrees to be an informant on the IRA, an incredibly dangerous thing to do. McGartland himself witnesses the torture and murder of an informant and knows that inevitably he will be found out, or will flee to live in hiding for the rest of his life.
He keeps his activities on both sides of the law secret from his wife Lara (Press) and even Sean. In the meantime, he infiltrates the IRA earning the trust of section chief Mickey (Collins) who becomes something of a father-figure to him. He also gets the attention of Grace (McGowan), a red-headed beauty who specializes in counter-espionage and “sleeping with the enemy” as it were to get their secrets. She develops an attraction for McGartland.
Although McGartland initially views his service as a bit of a lark (hey, he gets a brand new car out of the deal), he quickly comes to realize that this is no game. As the noose tightens around him and the date of a planned massacre at a pub approaches, McGartland wonders if he will be the hero or the victim in all of this.
The movie is loosely adapted from McGartland’s auto-biography (yes, there is a real Martin McGartland) although how loosely is subject to debate – there are those who question the facts in the autobiography itself. Canadian director Skogland has a nice eye for Ireland, settling the film into the rhythms of Irish life in the 1980s. The movie is loud, explosive and gut-grinding suspenseful.
It helps to have actors of the caliber of Ben Kingsley in your cast. Wearing a rather hideous rug, he still brings humanity to the British soldier who is ordered to use his assts, then becomes attached to them. When the British army turns its back on McGartland at the hour he needs them the most, Fergus takes it upon himself to make things as right as they can be.
The action is often brutal; IRA executions weren’t clean and antiseptic. They were sending a message, so the murders are pretty gruesome. The faint of heart may want to keep that in mind when they rent this disc.
The film rests on the shoulders of Sturgess, the young actor who was impressive in Across the Universe and 21. He is also impressive here, playing a cocky young hood who gradually changes into a frightened informant, one who knows that he is in a life-or-death struggle but yet his information saved by his own reckoning more than fifty lives, the dead men walking of the title. Sturgess not only gives McGartland depth, he also allows the character to grow and mature, something you don’t see a lot of in the movies.
While the pacing is a bit glacial in the first part of the movie, it slowly turns up the pressure as the movie progresses, until by the end of the movie you’re just about ready to scream. I wouldn’t say its masterful suspense direction, but it’s damn close. Certainly Skogland hits all the right notes for the most part.
The anger of the IRA towards McGartland is no joke; at least one attempt has been made on his life (the depiction of which bookends the movie) and he lives in hiding today; while the IRA is no longer the terrorist organization it once was, its memory is long and if McGartland were to emerge chances are they would at least try to kill him.
Some of the thick Irish brogues are difficult to understand so the filmmakers thoughtfully provided subtitles to allow you to decipher some of the dialogue which was much appreciated. That’s also a bit of a metaphor for the movie; the characters are speaking in plain English, but their meanings are in an entirely different language – the language of violence.
WHY RENT THIS: There’s a good deal of tension in the film, even though you know McGartland is going to survive. Sturgess and Kingsley give superb performances.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie drags at the beginning and is never that clear about McGartland’s motivations.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some scenes of brutal violence and torture, and as you might expect, plenty of foul language (nobody curses so eloquently as the Irish). There is also some sexuality as well, and plenty of adult themes. In short, not for the young ones.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kari Skogland’s last movie was The Stone Angel. The real Martin McGartland made a statement that he doesn’t endorse the film and that it was “inspired by” his story rather than is “based on.” He remains in hiding to this day.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
FINAL RATING: 6/10
TOMORROW: Jennifer’s Body