FALSELY ACCUSED. WRONGLY IMPRISONED. HE FOUGHT FOR JUSTICE TO CLEAR HIS FATHER’S NAME.
Right in the first scene we’re thrown into a street battle in Belfast. It’s the early 1970s and the British Army is in constant conflict with the IRA. That moment reminded me of a book I’m currently reading, ”Say Nothing”, Patrick Radden Keefe’s excellent account of the Troubles. He has a way of taking us close to the people who tried to survive in Belfast at the time.
There was no way of escaping the violence, apart from leaving the city… but even when Gerry Conlon did so in 1974 and went to London, he ended up in jail, accused of having planted a bomb in a pub that killed five people. He was innocent, like so many other people in Belfast who simply tried to get on with their lives.
About to be punished by the IRA
Gerry Conlon (Daniel Day-Lewis) had a habit of getting into trouble. In 1974, he’s the reason why a riot breaks out in Belfast, leading to clashes with the British Army, and the IRA are about to punish him for his behavior when Gerry’s father Patrick (Pete Postlethwaite), who’s called Giuseppe, steps in and makes sure his son leaves the city. Together with a friend, Paul Hill (John Lynch), Gerry goes to London. Jobs are scarce, so they spend most of the time doing drugs and committing petty crimes while living with a group of squatters. After the bombing of a pub in Guildford, they’re arrested, eventually going to prison along with Giuseppe…
A deepening father-son conflict
The Guildford Four were released in 1989 after spending 15 years in prison; by then enough evidence had accumulated to prove that they had been wrongly convicted. The Surrey police had edited and rearranged interviews with the suspects, frequently lying in court to make sure the four were convicted, for instance hiding the fact that there was a witness who could have provided Gerry and Paul with an alibi. Police officers were charged with conspiracy, but still found not guilty. The real bombers were most likely the Balcombe Street Siege gang, a part of the Provisional IRA; ironically, father and son Conlon met the man who was responsible for the atrocity in prison. In the film, it becomes a moment that deepens the conflict between Gerry and Giuseppe.
Much of the story focuses on their differences, which became a point of contention for Conlon himself. The film rights to the book he wrote after being released were bought by Gabriel Byrne who wanted to play Conlon, but hiring Jim Sheridan as director led both Byrne and Conlon into one disagreement after another. The latter objected to how he was portrayed and the former didn’t like how Sheridan strayed from some facts of the case; still, Byrne maintained an executive-producer credit.
The director and co-writer Terry George did indeed take liberties in their script, making so many changes in how the trial against the Guildford Four was depicted that one critic remarked on how that part of the movie looked more like L.A. Law than a British trial.
Still, this isn’t a documentary and the creative choices that Sheridan and George made helped craft a thrilling and moving tale that preserved the essence of Conlon’s experience. Their sharp script is a major reason why the movie works so well, but it’s also a treat to watch Day-Lewis and Postlethwaite in action. Only eleven years apart, the men are completely convincing as father and son, torn apart by conflicts that are typical of any family. The presence of the IRA in prison only makes it worse, but their joint suffering tugs at our heartstrings and provides the core of the movie. Emma Thompson is also fine as the stubborn solicitor who has to earn Gerry’s trust in order to help his case.
In the Name of the Father 1993-U.S.-Ireland. 127 min. Color. Produced and directed by Jim Sheridan. Screenplay: Terry George, Jim Sheridan. Book: Gerry Conlon (”Proved Innocent”). Song: ”(You Made Me the) Thief of Your Heart” (Bono, Gavin Friday, Maurice Seezer). Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis (Gerry Conlon), Pete Postlethwaite (Patrick ”Giuseppe” Conlon), Emma Thompson (Gareth Peirce), John Lynch, Corin Redgrave, Beatie Edney.
Berlin: Golden Bear.
Last word: “I hope one of the points of the film is obvious to English viewers – namely that one of the great tragedies of the IRA bombings is that the English have allowed them to inflict such terrible damage to their legal system. And I don’t think it’s anti-English of me to point that out. The Irish, from Swift to Shaw to Oscar Wilde, have always served as the outsiders that have made the English look at themselves.” (Sheridan, The Los Angeles Times)