The Boxer (1997)

D: Jim Sheridan
S: Daniel Day Lewis, Emily Watson, Gerard McSorley

Having made the breakthrough for international Irish films with the likes of My Left Foot and In the Name of the Father, director Jim Sheridan has now settled into a comfortable routine of writing, directing and producing works of cinema which are well made and generally entertaining. Of course, this has obvious pitfalls in that he is now less able to surprise us. He remains a metteur en scène to Neil Jordan's auteur, to borrow the old fashioned critical distinction. He has become one with the nameless artisans of Hollywood history; a man who can be relied upon do to the job well, and who sometimes comes up with something special, but whom you don't rely upon to make films which change your perception of the world.

The Boxer is exactly the kind of film you would expect from a talent of this sort. It is a well realised drama which has nothing new to say about its subject and offers nothing startling or of exceptional interest, but which is thoroughly watchable. It is based on a workmanlike script by Terry George and directed with concern for smooth, meaningful storytelling.

Boxer Daniel Day Lewis emerges from prison after fifteen years and returns to his war torn ghetto in an attempt to rebuild his life and rekindle his relationship with his old girlfriend, (Emily Watson), now married. He faces the assembled forces of sectarian bitterness and intransigence as he steps across several boundaries in doing so. Eventually, his personal struggle brings questions of the future of Northern Ireland to a head and violent confrontation with the forces of hardline Republicanism is inevitable even in a climate of uncertainty and change.

Its presentation of the complexities of the current situation in Northern Ireland (specifically as it applies to Catholic and Republican characters, of course) is the only new element of this classic drama, and that is really only a matter of a backdrop. The rest is played out entirely within expected norms. It is a story of love across barriers, good versus evil (with some shadowy delineation between hardline and compromising characters within the paramilitary group), and ultimately resolves itself in a thoroughly predictable final ten minutes. There's nothing wrong with this, but it seems to have irritated many Irish critics, who are, as ever, eager to see Irish cinema eschew the values of Hollywood classicism and embrace a more European model.

Funnily enough, on the surface, the pace of the film is slow and deliberate in the manner of second cinema, and its emphasis on characters framed by a social and political environment might well be considered along the same lines. It takes its time to lay out the details of the coming conflict, and is not so much structured around the boxing matches in the manner of a Rocky film, as it uses them as anchors in the continual upping of the dramatic stakes. Only a match which takes place in an eerie London club stands apart as something of a set piece; a chilling condemnation of colonialism where former subjects of the Empire beat each other to a pulp for the amusement of the rich and powerful.

The performances are sincere and generally good. Day Lewis is fine, and works well with Watson (whose accent slips occasionally, but is usually good). Brian Cox is menacingly sympathetic as the Republican negotiator, with Gerard McSorley marvelously hateful as the unforgiving martyr to violent resistance. Each actor contributes to the atmosphere and plays their part in the unfolding drama without histrionics or uncomfortable emphases, though it is possible to see the film as a vehicle for Day Lewis (whose stardom has peaked nicely following the likes of My Beautiful Laundrette).

Everything about the film is admirable and careful and works towards the ultimate aim of telling a good story well. But there is nothing here that makes it worth going to see unless you have an interest in questions of representation of Ireland or some devotion to its star. It never moves out of second gear, and though it gets where it's going without making many serious mistakes, it is not about to make you see either Ireland or the cinema in a different light.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.