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British Justice Walking on Eire


By Katherine C. Raff

In the Name of the Father

directed by Jim Sheridan

"In the Name of the Father" successfully presents a shocking, contemporary tragic drama without employing the fabricated tone of so many recent courtroom films. Director Jim Sheridan expertly captures the emotional passage of time of the film's main character, the wrongfully accused Irish prisoner Gerry Conlon (Daniel Day-Lewis).

The initial setting for the film is the war zone of Belfast in 1974. English troops parole the streets with rifles on their hips; when a youth, stealing scrap metal from a roof, waves a stick around, these troops pronounce him a "sniper" and shoot at him. The young man flees, and is chased through the small alleys and homes of Belfast; meanwhile, its inhabitants beat the walls and pavement with trash can lids to raise an alarm. Soon a riot has been provoked, and English tanks and soldiers careen through the streets. The young man who started this uproar is Gerry Conlon.

London in 1974 is a war zone as well. A series of bombing attacks by the IRA has the city living in fear. Yet it is better for Gerry Conlon to live here than Belfast, or "this God-forsaken place," as both his father and aunt put it. Gerry has been sent to London to clean up, but instead he and a friend discover commune life, drugs, and petty theivery. He is a ragged, vain, young man, who uses the word "fuck" indiscriminately and consistently.

But when Gerry and three other Irish friends are held in a London jail for seven days without being informed of their charges, he begins a saga that will prove this petty thief to possess a greater moral conscience than the representatives of the British police and judicial system. Mercilessly abused during questionings, they eventually learn they are accused of bombing a pub in Guildford. However, they are innocent: "We didn't even have the bus fare to Guildford even if we had known where it was," Gerry recalls. By the time the case is brought to court, the "Guildford Four" have been joined by various members of Gerry's family. His little cousin, his old aunt, and his strung-out friends look ridiculous as they are accused of "one of the most cunning and cruel conspiracies ever to set foot on English soil."

These Irish people are the scapegoats of the British government, and the prosecution will go to any length--withold evidence, testify falsely, torture the prisoners--to have them convicted. As Gerry is sentenced to life in prison, even the judge laments that he won't be hung for his "crime."

Gerry's bleak existence in prison begins with his meek, aging father (Pete Postlethwaite). The two, who were never very close before, suddenly grow dependent upon one another, venting their anger, frustrations, and love. They are clearly of two generations: While Guiseppe Conlon prays with his rosary, Gerry trips on acid. When without proper medical care, Guiseppe's heart condition becomes critical, Gerry must grow up. He does things he would never have done before: He rubs menthol on his father's chest, saves the life of a warden, and begins to cooperate with the young lawyer, Gareth Peirce (Emma Thompson) who is trying to seek an appeal for their case.

Ironically, after Guiseppe's death, the English public who had previously demanded punishment redirects its vengeful "mass hysteria." Now the English populace rallies for justice for the prisoners. Gerry goes from being the "Irish scum" prisoner to a celebrity, and Gareth Peirce's clever detective work eventually uncovers the truth.

Because "In the Name of the Father" is based on Gerry Conlan's memoir, Proved Innocent, it does not have an idyllic tone. No one is glorified in this movie. Gerry is stubborn and immature throughout, and Gareth cannot control herself in court. She screams at the judge and the witness about the injustices her clients have suffered.

Day-Lewis' and Postlethwaite's interpretations of Gerry and Guiseppe are captivating: In their helplessness, Gerry is prone to bouts of charged insanity while the sick Guiseppe sinks into silent meekness. However, their humanity shines in comparison to their unpredictable prison-mate, Joe (Don Baker), the silent, controlling IRA terrorist who is actually responsible for the Guildford bombing.

"In the Name of the Father" is a serious, frustrating, exhilarating film. Swift cutting in exciting moments causes one's heart to palpitate; drums beat whenever the English army or police force are in action; the camera zeroes in on the quivering mouth of the police captain as he lies in court and is caught.

While it is difficult to understand the thick Irish accents of many of the characters, it is even more difficult to watch innocent people being tortured by a supposedly fair judicial system. "I don't understand your language," Gerry cries to Peirce, "justice; mercy; clemency!" From Gerry's point of view, the English language is quite different from the Irish language; for even the guilty Joe seeks justice for his fellow countrymen. Bono's title track appropriately compliments the Irish frustration with English oppression.

Though it has its pleasant moments, don't see "In the Name of the Father" if you are looking for light-hearted entertainment. Do see it for its intensity, strong acting and gripping plot.

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