As advance screenings of major movies go, it wasn’t exactly conventional. Only 5% of those invited showed up, and the film was temporarily halted halfway through because the audience had other important business to attend to.
Yet the special screening this week for British lawmakers of Jim Sheridan’s film “In the Name of the Father,” held in Committee Room 20 at the seat of Britain’s Parliament--Westminster’s House of Commons--was widely judged a success.
The film, starring Daniel Day-Lewis, is about Gerry Conlon, one of the Guildford Four--three Irishmen and a woman convicted of planting a bomb in a pub in 1974 that killed five and injured 64. Their convictions were overturned after appeals, by which time they had been in jail for 15 years.
“In the Name of the Father” opens here next Friday, as British politicians are wrestling with the prospect of a peace accord over the future of Northern Ireland, and debating whether to negotiate with the Irish Republican Army, which admits numerous terrorist acts over the past 25 years.
The screening was organized by New Consensus, a Parliamentary caucus of lawmakers from various parties. Later, opposition Labour MP Harry Barnes, joint president of the caucus, gave “In the Name of the Father” a mixed reception.
“If art could be divorced from life, which it can’t,” said Barnes, “this film would be artistically and dramatically brilliant. In turning reality into drama, some license is inevitable. However, this stunning and well-acted film rather oversimplifies and cuts too many corners. Unintentionally it hides important parts of the history of a terrible miscarriage of justice that happened to the Guildford Four . . . the film is superb but flawed.”
Barnes added that Conlon’s alibi for the night of the Guildford bombings was actually revealed by a police inquiry, and that the film failed to show the efforts of British MPs in righting the wrong against the Four. “These points illustrate that the legal system is not entirely vicious, corrupt and anti-Irish,” he said.
Conservative MP Peter Bottomley, another joint president of New Consensus, said: “People I spoke to afterward were glad they had seen it.” Some members of his party thought Sheridan had given a false account of how Irish Republican prisoners were treated. But, said Bottomley, others might modify their attitudes slightly toward Northern Ireland because of the film.
Some 35 lawmakers, of a possible 650, attended the screening; while that sounds like a low figure, New Consensus chair Gary Kent described it as “a high attendance for a special-interest event.” The MPs were joined by peace activists, peers from the House of Lords and a police representative.
The film was halted halfway through, as lawmakers were called to the Commons chamber to vote on a crucial finance bill. After it finally ended, Sheridan took questions, defending the film against charges of inaccuracy.
Later, Sheridan called the screening “a useful exercise. I think some MPs were shocked by the film,” he said. He responded to those who wondered if the film’s inaccuracies (like the fact that Conlon and his father never shared a jail cell) did not strengthen the case against the Guildford Four. “But there is no case against the Four,” he said. “I started with the presumption they were innocent.”
While it remains to be seen how the British moviegoing public will receive the film, the media have already weighed in--mostly negatively. Sheridan personally has felt some heat: “One or two journalists have been a bit nasty,” he said, “but I think they felt they had to be.” On BBC Radio’s influential talk show “Start the Week,” for example, questions directed at Sheridan were tough but not hostile.
But an article in the current Spectator magazine lambastes the film. Its author, Alasdair Palmer, who has worked on several TV docudramas, writes: “For the majority of people who will leave the cinema thinking they have seen a shocking true story, the film is not so much a failure as a fraud. The whole attempt to make any kind of political statement is fatally compromised by the blatant falsehoods it contains. For most of the people who see it--and they will be Americans--this will be the only version they know.”