Veronica Guerin (2003)

D: Joel Schumacher
S: Cate Blanchett, Gerard McSorley

Veronica Guerin was consulting with writer Michael Sheridan on a movie script about her life before she was murdered in 1996. She specifically instructed Sheridan not to turn her life story into a glamorised tale of liberal martyrdom, but rather hoped for a story of how her journalistic crusade blew the lid on the Dublin drug trade and the high-level criminals behind it. Her death changed the situation, because instead of being merely the victim of threats and beatings which made her a focus for concern, she had quite literally become a martyr. Her death galvanised elements within the city to take more action against so-called drug barons and a special government bureau was established to freeze the assets of suspected criminals. Among the first and most high-profile of these was John Gilligan, the man believed to have ordered the hit on Guerin herself and who is still embroiled in legal proceedings in attempt to reduce his sentence.

The first film to tell her story, partly based on Sheridan's original script, was the less than effective When the Sky Falls, a well-meaning but poorly organised film which had the merit of succeeding in its attempt to avoid sentimental overstatement. The prospect of a big budget Hollywood treatment produced by Jerry Bruckheimer (Con-Air) and directed by Joel Schumacher (Phonebooth) was more than faintly scary. Produced under the working title "Chasing the Dragon", the film has finally arrived amid a blaze of publicity which didn't bode well for a tone of restraint.

Veronica Guerin is a great deal better than expected. It is, in fact, so much better than expected that relief may prompt undue enthusiasm. It is a good film, a solid piece of basic storytelling which holds the sentiment firmly in check and manages to render the most impressively realistic representation of criminal lowlifes yet seen on the Irish screen (oh don't start that old debate again: the subject, most of the cast and most of the crew are Irish, let's just leave it at that, okay?). In the wake of Irish-based crime dramas and comedies of various levels of quality, Veronica Guerin is the first film to portray gangsters as vicious scumbag thugs absolutely bereft of glamorising characteristics or sympathetic dimensions, and this is its strongest and most laudable aspect. After a few pretty sleazy opening scenes which establish the context of drugs in the city perhaps too forcefully, the film doesn't wallow in iniquity either (like the ill-fated 1980s crime drama The Courier did). It is a straightforward story of a crusading journalist taking on forces larger and more powerful than herself yet so much less worthy of the label of 'human' that it is hard not to empathise with her professional motivation.

Sensitively handled all round, Veronica Guerin also benefits from a good central performance from Cate Blanchett in the title role. Her accent is very good, but even better is the uncanny way she has captured the gestures and vocal rhythms of the real Guerin while still retaining her thespian grasp on fictionalised portrayal. Though not completely 'rounded' in the classic Hollywood sense, nor as psychologically intricate as an art house drama, the character comes across as a believable human being with many sides. The darker and more potentially irresponsible traits of the obsessive journalist are not really explored (certainly not as forcefully as they were in When the Sky Falls, perhaps to the earlier film's detriment), but there are enough indications of conflicting personal and professional elements to at least hint at them.

The supporting cast is mostly Irish, with Gerard McSorley (The Boxer) making an excellent antagonist as Gilligan, here portrayed as a boorish, petty man with a vicious cruelty which is in no way endearing. The same goes for the representation of nearly all of the criminal characters, notably equally so of Martin Cahill, the subject of three previous films which mixed humorous whimsy with the strong-arm side (The General, Vicious Circle, Ordinary Decent Criminal). The only character who aspires to traditional gangster 'cool' is the self-aggrandizing middleman played by Ciaran Hinds, who is subjected to much subtle ridicule before finally being fully implicated in the empty corruption against which Guerin was still fighting when she died.

For all its good points, Veronica Guerin is a film which never builds quite the head of steam it needs to catapult it to Oscar-level acclaim. Its climax, though moving, is not quite as emotionally wrenching as the slow reverse zoom and crane shot employed by Schumacher seems to suggest it should be, and the montage with voice over which wraps the film and outlines the official action taken in the wake of Guerin's assassination is less a catharsis than the narrative structure implies.

We are never truly immersed in Guerin's emotional world either. Though Blanchett is good and the script by Carol Doyle and Mary Agnes Donoghue tries to balance the social roles of wife, mother, and crusader, she remains an aloof figure. Even a small supporting turn by Brenda Fricker as Guerin's mother fails to 'flesh out' the few basic character dimensions we are shown. The movie really moves too quickly to allow a depth of characterisation to emerge, and though this works well as far as the supporting cast is concerned, it leaves too great a hole at the centre to generate a real connection between the character and the viewer. Also, though the representation of the physical world of the film is quite strong (and it gets the small details correct that went astray in When the Sky Falls), this is not an unfamiliar story from a strictly generic point of view. The film therefore lacks the spark of originality or even of a truly interesting perspective (is this a belated follow up to Erin Brockovich or merely another Silkwood?). Only the setting in Ireland makes it of special interest, and then probably only to local audiences. Even then, it isn't especially insightful and its penetration into the mindset of Celtic Tiger Ireland is fairly superficial.

Don't get me wrong, there is much that is worthwhile about this film, and it is, as noted, much better than expected. It is almost good enough to at least dull the painful memories of Batman & Robin as far as its director's career is concerned or, on a local level, Ordinary Decent Criminal. It is not a masterpiece, nor, to be fair, does it really set itself up that highly. It is a modest, well crafted drama showing admirable restraint, buoyed by good performances and a solid script, and tackles a difficult subject pretty well. It never really moves out of a steady and effective second gear, but we should be thankful for the considerable mercy which comes from it not being an overblown self-important weepie of the kind Guerin herself really didn't want to see.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2003.