Wednesday April 30, 1997

     The chaos of riot and revenge in Northern Ireland, characterized with deceptive mildness as "the troubles," goes on and so does the passion to make films about it. In 1984, a young actor named John Lynch made his feature debut as an IRA lad in the affecting "Cal," went on to 1993's "In the Name of the Father," and now is back on the streets of Belfast yet again in "Nothing Personal," a work that stands strongly on its own.
     Given all that similar cinema, it's inevitable that "Nothing Personal" feels familiar at first. When it opens in a busy Belfast pub in 1975 with ominous Irish drumbeats, everyone except the pint drinkers knows a bomb is about to go off.
     But as directed by Thaddeus O'Sullivan, whose fine but very different "December Bride" won a pan-European Felix Award, "Nothing Personal" soon goes its own way, both in focus and tone. It's one of those films that tears you to pieces emotionally, but it displays a love for language and character along the way.
     Adapted by Daniel Mornin from his novel "All Our Fault," "Nothing Personal" departs from the norm by focusing most of its attention on the Protestant battle lines. Not that that makes much difference, for in clannishness and loyalty to a tit-for-tat ethic of retaliation, both sides are more each other's mirror image than they want to acknowledge.
     As "December Bride" (as well as his delightful debut short, "The Woman Who Married Clark Gable") showed, O'Sullivan has a gift for character and the ability not to cross the line into emotional overkill. Determined not to be maudlin, he's dedicated this film to Gilo Pontecorvo's classic "Battle of Algiers" because it managed to "represent conflict in an emotional way that's not sentimental."
     Helpful here is the way director of photography Dick Pope, a veteran of several films with Mike Leigh, can catch reality on the fly, as well as screenwriter Mornin's graceful dialogue. It's a cliche to comment on the Irish gift for self-expression, but it's hard to hear lines like "If I can't pity myself once in a while, who can I pity?" and "If you had a brain in your head it'd feel lonely" without saying a silent thank you.
     "Nothing Personal" is set during a 24-hour period when exhausted Protestant and Catholic leaders, feeling "it's time we got the nutters off the streets," declare a shaky cease-fire. The film's larger question is not whether the truce will last but whether it can last, whether a culture based on random violence can be modulated or brought to a halt.
     As a noncombatant, Catholic Liam Kelly (Lynch) cares only about the cease-fire because he wants the streets around his house safe for his two children (Jeni Courtney, Ciaran Fitzgerald) to play in. Out of work and separated from his wife, he finds himself somewhere on the Protestant side of the barricades on that cease-fire night and being in the wrong place at the wrong time sets up a fateful chain of events.
     The Protestants we meet are committed to military action. While leader Leonard (the protean Michael Gambon) is starting to feel worn down, his younger subordinates are drugged on violence and power, capable of kneecapping a young man as casually as lighting a cigarette.
     Loyalist squad leader Kenny (a nicely ambivalent James Frain) has sacrificed his family to what he believes is service to his country. Kenny's pal Ginger (Ian Holm, winner of the best supporting actor award in Venice), has only surface interest in political reasons. He's an unthinking, smug hothead who increasingly loves the killing for its own sake.
     "Nothing Personal" is especially good at showing how these cycles of violence in Belfast spiral out of control, at revealing the poison of hatred and revenge spreading without check to a younger and still impressionable generation like a new kind of gang warfare.
     Because O'Sullivan doesn't believe in stinting on horrors, "Nothing Personal," with some graphic scenes of torture and death, can be hard to take. In its decisions about who shall live and who shall die, the film is also open to the charge of being unnecessarily schematic. But even if your mind has problems with plot points, your emotions are always affected.
     The most painful thing about "Nothing Personal" is the realization that today, 20-plus years further on, a solution is not necessarily any closer. The words of Yeats that open the film are as applicable now as they ever were: "The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned. The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity."

Nothing Personal, 1997. Unrated. A Channel Four Film with the participation of the Irish Film Board, British Screen and Little Bird Productions, released by Trimark Pictures. Director Thaddeus O'Sullivan. Producers Jonathan Cavendish, Tracy Seaward. Screenplay by Daniel Mornin, based on his novel "All Our Fault." Cinematographer Dick Pope. Editor Michael Parker. Costumes Consolata Boyle. Music Philip Appleby. Production design Mark Geraghty. Art director Fiona Daly. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes. Ian Hart as Ginger. John Lynch as Liam. James Frain as Kenny. Michael Gambon as Leonard. Gary Lydon as Eddie.