If the world had been created without injustice, Hollywood would have invented it by now. Fueled by a righteous “ j’accuse " kind of anger, the movies enjoy nothing more than fulminating against miscarriages of justice and defending the ill-treated and falsely maligned.
“In the Name of the Father” (AMC Century City and Cineplex Odeon Universal City) is a model of this kind of engaged, enraged filmmaking, a politically charged “Fugitive” that uses one of the most celebrated cases of recent British history to steamroller an audience with the power of rousing, polemical cinema.
“In the Name of the Father” also reunites the formidable creative team responsible for “My Left Foot,” director Jim Sheridan and star Daniel Day-Lewis. Strongly tied to a powerful underlying reality (though it inevitably tends to simplify), this film has the additional advantage of being concerned with the emotional truth of its key relationships, adding an unusual father and son story to its incendiary mix.
Sheridan hits us almost at once with a shocking component of the film’s reality, the 1974 IRA bombing of a pub in Guildford, a town just outside of London. Five people were killed, but the damage done to a nervous Britain’s sense of internal security was greater still.
In the climate of near-hysteria that followed, the Draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act was passed, allowing the police to interrogate suspects for up to seven days without bringing charges or allowing access to an attorney. A young man named Gerry Conlon (Lewis) and three pals were arrested under this measure, and, soon to be known as the Guildford Four, all were charged with the bombing.
A brief prologue places Conlon in prison, introduces us to his new lawyer, Gareth Peirce (Emma Thompson), and then flashes back to his past, back to Belfast in the early 1970s, where Conlon is on his way to driving everybody, from the IRA to the British troops, crazy.
A long-haired wiseacre and petty thief with a mouth that won’t stay shut, Conlon is the son of the timid Giuseppe (Pete Postlethwaite), the kind of man who believes that “honest money goes further.” Fearful for his son’s life after he precipitates a blood-stirring riot, Giuseppe sends him off to England, where Conlon heads straight for a hippie commune looking for drugs, free love and all the trimmings.
It is on a visit back to Belfast that Conlon is suddenly arrested for the Guildford bombing. And it is in its powerful, unsettling re-creation of how the British police psychologically bludgeon a confession out of him that Sheridan’s cracker-jack visceral filmmaking begins to unerringly pull us in, totally involving the audience on the side of this classic wrong man.
Bad as Conlon’s situation is, it gets worse. When his poor father comes over to England to try to help him find a lawyer, he is arrested, too, as is Conlon’s royals-loving aunt and assorted other unlikely relatives. And, after an investigation controlled by the ruthless Inspector Dixon (presumably a pseudonym), Conlon is sentenced to 30 years to life imprisonment for a crime there seems to be no doubt he did not commit.
Most of “In the Name of the Father” takes place behind the walls of the various prisons Conlon is incarcerated in over nearly 15 years, and the film’s script (written by Terry George and Sheridan from Conlon’s autobiographical “Proved Innocent”) follows his situation from both legal and personal perspectives.
Though the various attempts, ultimately spearheaded by lawyer Peirce (a small role for Thompson, but one with a big payoff), to have Conlon freed are gripping, they gain much of their strength from the film’s ability to emphasize how this feckless youth changes as an individual and in relation to his father.
Persuasively played by veteran British theater and TV actor Postlethwaite (startling as a different kind of father in Terence Davies’ “Distant Voices, Still Lives”), Giuseppe Conlon is an ordinary-seeming dad whose strengths are only visible gradually and under duress.
As the son whose eyes are opened, Daniel Day-Lewis gives another one of his extraordinarily convincing performances. Of Irish descent, he may have come by his character’s melodic accent naturally, but more demanding were not only the chilling interrogation sequences (the actor went without sleep or food for several days to prepare) but also the transformation in personality Conlon undergoes.
Starting as a callow malcontent, Conlon visibly matures during his years inside, interacting with not only his father but also fellow prisoners Joseph McAndrew (Don Baker), an IRA stalwart, and Benbay (Paterson Joseph), a mellow Rastafarian. And Day-Lewis changes along with his character, his body and even the cast of his face altering in the course of this rich, screen-owning presentation. It is a piece of acting that makes us feel we are living those harrowing years right along with him.
While “In the Name of the Father” leaves you with no doubt as to Conlon’s innocence, it should be noted that the case remains a controversial one in Britain, with trials pertaining to it still going on and one conservative newspaper going so far as to say that Thompson’s decision to take the role was “not perhaps the wisest decision a British actress could make.”
As for the real Conlon, he closes his book with the hope that he won’t “spend the rest of my life being known only as one of the Guildford Four.”
Whatever else it does, and it does quite a lot, “In the Name of the Father” puts that hope a lot further off into the future.
‘In the Name of the Father’
Daniel Day-Lewis: Gerry Conlon
Pete Postlethwaite: Giuseppe Conlon
Emma Thompson: Gareth Peirce
John Lynch: Paul Hill
Corin Redgrave: Robert Dixon
Beatie Edney: Carole Richardson
A Hell’s Kitchen/Gabriel Byrne production, released by Universal Pictures. Director Jim Sheridan. Producer Jim Sheridan. Executive producer Gabriel Byrne. Screenplay Terry George & Jim Sheridan, based on the book “Proved Innocent” by Gerry Conlon. Cinematographer Peter Biziou. Editor Gerry Hambling. Costumes Joan Bergin. Music Trevor Jones. Production design Caroline Amies. Art director Rick Butler. Running time: 2 hours, 7 minutes.
MPAA rating: R for “language and politically generated violence.” Times guidelines: scenes of torture, bombings, street and prison riots and an overall level of high tension.