Divorcing Jack (1998)

D: David Caffrey
S: David Thewlis, Rachel Griffiths, Jason Isaacs

Immensely satisfying comic thriller from the novel by Colin Bateman demonstrating many of the same qualities as Cycle of Violence, only with more energy. Belfast journalist David Thewlis finds himself embroiled in a Hitchcockian convolution of plots within plots when following an affair with a young student (Laura Fraser) who is later murdered, he finds himself the subject of a manhunt involving both nationalist and loyalist paramilitaries, the RUC, the British Army and the public at large. Encounters with a variety of lowlifes and characters in of Northern Ireland's underworld provide him with temporary shelter as the trail leads ever higher until it reaches the doors of a man about to become the first Prime Minister (Robert Lindsay).

The details of the plot are best left to its viewing, given that the film hinges upon a murder mystery, but suffice to say that much of its humour comes from its vivid portrayal of familiar and unfamiliar types and its play on convention and genre. Like Cycle of Violence, it is the combination of a well worked story with interesting characters which uses its Northern Irish setting to its advantage. All black comedy comes from the inappropriateness of making light of subjects deemed too serious for such treatment. The conflict within Northern Ireland has long been ripe for this, and, as novelist and now screenwriter, Bateman has taken the initiative. He is assisted here by a funny performance by David Thewlis and good support from a variety of others (Rachel Griffiths of My Son, The Fanatic fame has a showy but amusing role as a nurse who is a nunogram at night, Bróna Gallagher is hilarious as a taxi driver) and slick, often stylish direction by first timer David Caffrey.

This BBC funded film has little of the stodginess which sometimes dogs their big screen releases (Regeneration leaps to mind). It has plenty of pace and humour and does a beautiful job of using genuine locations to enhance the action. Caffrey directs smoothly and with due attention for timing and dramatic development, and only in the closing minutes does he surrender the screen to a long speech by Thewlis which spells out the message. Still the film is splendidly realised and hugely enjoyable.

The film is sometimes violent and generally very profane, but uses its occasional outbursts of graphic nastiness to its advantage. The tone of danger is maintained throughout, leaving us in some suspense as to the fate of the characters. This works well because rather than knowing all will turn out well in the end (as in I Went Down), we are left wondering just who will survive and what state they will be in if they do so. This keeps us involved right up to the end, and the film resolves itself with a final black comic flourish.

This is not a film for everyone, but it is fresh and entertaining in a way that many films coming out of the Island of Ireland are not (this is a British/Northern Irish film rather than one from the Republic). After I Went Down and Cycle of Violence, Divorcing Jack finally realises the potential for well made movies which offer the public something more than sombre reflection, but which has a brisk and original voice of its own.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1998.