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MOVIES : Director Is Finding Peace With ‘Father’ : Jim Sheridan’s film isn’t about the IRA; it’s about a father and son who couldn’t connect

<i> Allan Barra writes about the arts for Newsday and the Village Voice. </i>

Jim Sheridan isn’t exactly sure what it is that he’s done, but he’s absolutely certain that what he hasn’t done is make a film about the Irish Republican Army. Members of the British press, most of whom haven’t yet seen “In the Name of the Father,” seem convinced that he has. One London paper, the Evening Standard, suggested that Emma Thompson might be stigmatized for her decision to appear in it.

“Given the prevailing mood in Britain,” the writer said, “it is likely to turn her from darling to rebel overnight.” One tabloid suggested that the film’s star, Daniel Day-Lewis, has wasted the opportunity given to him by the success of “The Last of the Mohicans” and “The Age of Innocence” and “thrown away his chance to be a matinee idol.”

Sheridan gives off a bewildered shrug when confronted with the last quote.

“Wonderful,” he says, in a working-class Dublin accent too perfect for even an actor of Day-Lewis’ talents to fake. “Now, in addition to everything else I’ve got to think about"--he says tink for think --"I’ve got to worry about ruining Daniel’s career.”

It isn’t likely that Day-Lewis’ performance as Gerry Conlon, the Belfast lad wrongly accused of a horrendous 1974 bombing of a pub in Guildford, a suburb of London, in which five were killed and 70 hurt, will hurt the actor’s reputation. If anything, his performance, looser and funnier than his Oscar-winning role in “My Left Foot” or his recent hits, will have audiences gasping at his transformation into an Irish hippie-turned-convict who plays air guitar on the roofs of Belfast houses while British soldiers try to pick him off.

But the film isn’t about politics, right? Sheridan hesitates--this is a point where words should be chosen carefully.

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“It’s not a political film in the usual sense of the word. I mean, it’s about politics, y’know? One thing it’s definitely not is anti-British. It’s not a finger-pointing film. I love the English and I think they’re great people--you can’t touch them for loyalty or independence of spirit.

“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.”

He pauses to collect his thoughts. “To the degree that ‘In the Name of the Father’ is about politics, it’s about the effect extremist politics can have on our lives. The precise point of the film is that Gerry Conlon wasn’t in the IRA, yet his father and friend and several members of his family spent years in prison--his father died there--for a bombing that there wasn’t a shred of evidence to connect them with.”

In the near-hysteria that followed the bombing, Conlon, his friend Paul Hill, a 17-year-old Londoner named Paddy Armstrong and an English girl named Carole Richardson were convicted of planting the Guildford pub bomb and served 15 years before Gareth Peirce, an English civil rights lawyer played by Thompson, looked into their case and discovered that investigators had deliberately withheld evidence that could have acquitted the four.

Meanwhile, the so-called Maguire Seven, members of Conlon’s family, including his father, his aunt Annie Maguire and her husband, Paddy and their two sons (15-year-old Vincent and 13-year-old Patrick), were arrested as part of the “terrorist” ring. All served several years in prison. The real IRA bombers confessed to the crime, but the confession was ignored by a judicial Establishment that stood to be embarrassed if the truth came out.

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“On one level, the film is a Kafka-like story about how a person through absolutely no fault of his own can get caught in a nightmare of something he can’t comprehend. I think it’s a film everyone can relate to, because deep down inside, all of us--no matter what authority figures have said--we all know that it’s the truly innocent who usually get in the most trouble. The guilty know how to avoid it.

“On another level, though--and this is what drew me to the script in the first place--it’s the story of how a father and son who could never connect with each other in the normal world finally bond while in prison.” (Sheridan shares the writing credit with journalist and playwright Terry George.)

“There haven’t been too many good fathers in Irish literature--I think maybe Leopold Bloom is the only good one,” Sheridan says, referring to the character in James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” “so I’m attracted to stories that explore that relationship.” Sheridan has now produced two outstanding Irish fathers: the late Ray McAnally in “My Left Foot,” and Peter Postlethwaite, in a performance remarkably synced to Day-Lewis’, in “In the Name of the Father.”

Sheridan, who was born in Dublin in 1949, had a father who exerted a powerful influence on his life and work, taking him to the theater at an early age and urging him to read. Though they “had a lot of rows when I was in my teens and early 20s,” Sheridan says, they got along well enough to work together in a theater company.

He did some acting in the group--one of his fellow actors was young writer and would-be director Neil Jordan, who went on to win his own Academy Award last year for writing “The Crying Game.” (“Me ‘n’ him played mules together in one play,” Sheridan recalls. “He was a better director than actor, Neil was.”)

Later Sheridan founded the Project Arts Centre, the focal point for a generation that found Dublin’s Abbey Theatre too stuffy. Stephen Rea, Liam Neeson, Brenda Fricker, Gabriel Byrne and just about every other Irish actor of consequence in the late ‘70s performed at the Centre.

There were other jobs, including manager of a club in Dublin that featured an aspiring rock band with a singer named Bono.

“God, they were awful,” Sheridan recalls of the band that would become U2. “I mean, they were only 17 or 18 at the time, and even then you could see they had some great ideas . . . they had the potential to go places. But they sounded awful.” (Bono contributed some original music to the soundtrack of “In the Name of the Father.”)

In 1981, Sheridan moved his wife and children to Canada and then about a year later, to New York, where he drove a cab to support them while working as artistic director of the Irish Arts Centre, a group that helped introduce the great playwright Brian Friel to American audiences.

It was in New York that theater producer Noel Pearson approached Sheridan about writing a film biography of novelist Christy Brown. The result, 1989’s “My Left Foot,” won two Oscars and became the first of four Sheridan screenplays to be filmed (he also wrote and directed 1990’s “The Field,” starring Richard Harris, and wrote the screenplay for last year’s critically acclaimed “Into the West” for director Mike Newell).

“My Left Foot” began his artistic partnership with Day-Lewis, an odd but potent pairing that has been compared to that of Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro.

Sheridan shrugs at the suggestion: “Well, it’s flattering, of course but it’s strange to hear it. I mean, Scorsese and De Niro have similar backgrounds, but Daniel and me, we’re so different. I mean, we’re not a gang, me ‘n’ Daniel. He’s English, of course, and we’re from, let’s say, different social areas. We’re from similar, I don’t know, what’s the word. . . .” Day-Lewis, when asked later to fill in the blank, says: “We’re from similar psychological areas. When Jim writes a script, I often have the eerie feeling he’s writing about me. Not my background, of course, but my emotional makeup.”

Sheridan seconds that notion. “Daniel has a terrifying ability to perceive what it is that you’re getting at with the written word. He performs things exactly the way I envision them. I have to concede to him a small degree of madness when I’m directing him"--Sheridan’s eyes twinkle a bit--"because, after all, he’s the inspiration for a bit of it in me.”


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