Weekly Wire
Gambit Weekly Ring of Violence

By Rick Barton

JANUARY 26, 1998: 

FILM: The Boxer
STARRING: Daniel Day-Lewis, Emily Watson
DIRECTOR: Jim Sheridan

It is the premise of Jim Sheridan's The Boxer that the ongoing violence in Northern Ireland has made prisoners of an entire society. Young boys throw rocks and then Molotov cocktails in the rubble-strewn streets of Belfast. Ignited by the ancient anger of their parents, fanned by the hot breath of adolescent macho, youngsters join the Catholic IRA or its paramilitary Protestant equivalent. And soon they are in jail. There they marry, their brides in white lace divided from them by the bars of their confinement. And now the women are in jail, too, honor bound to be faithful to men they may barely know and seldom see.

The Boxer is the story of two such people, Danny (Daniel Day- Lewis) and Maggie (Emily Watson). Danny and Maggie were sweethearts when they were in their teens, when Danny was a promising prize fighter. But Danny went to jail when he was 18 for his involvement in IRA activities. Before he left for prison, Danny broke up with Maggie so that her life wouldn't be ruined in his absence. Subsequently, she married Danny's best friend, but that boy went to jail as well, leaving Maggie to raise her son, Liam (Ciaran Fitzgerald), by herself. Now, at age 32, Danny finally has been released. He returns to his old Belfast neighborhood, determined to resurrect his boxing career. He yearns to reestablish his old relationship with Maggie, but he's prohibited from doing so by a protocol that demands wives of incarcerated IRA operatives to remain faithful.

Working with a script he co-wrote with Terry George, Sheridan strives to bring depth and complexity to this heartbreaking situation. Just as Thaddeus O'Sullivan did in last year's searching Nothing Personal, Sheridan implies that the roots of violence are lost in a murky past. Catholics and Protestants hate each other because they've been trained to. Few could name real issues between the two groups. What both sides remember are recent atrocities committed by the other. Bombings and murders are justification for a "legitimate" response. And the cycle never stops.

Danny sees this, though he's not nearly so optimistic as to think he can change it. Once, perhaps, a youthful believer in IRA propaganda -- a "revolutionary" thinking he could help reunite his country -- Danny now understands the IRA is an organization that thrives on its own hatred. During his time in prison, Danny has narrowed his focus, symbolically to the controllable size of a boxing ring. He wants to have a life. He wants nothing to do with the IRA, including any trouble that might result from his outwardly opposing them. Back in his old neighborhood, he begins to train under the tutelage of his old alcoholic coach, Ike (Peter Sheridan). With Ike, he opens a boxing gym in a dilapidated community center.

Watson and Day-Lewis are forbidden lovers in a violent world
Plenty enough of this works to make The Boxer worth seeing. There's a commendable effort to emphasize the humanity of all the players. To that end, even when a villain is killed, the filmmakers show the genuine bereavement of his wife, a new victim in a long line of victims. Throughout, with admirable deftness, Sheridan illustrates how difficult it will be to solve the problems. Danny isn't looking to be a leader, but he and Ike agree that the boxing center must be open to Protestant as well as Catholic boys. Many people disapprove, of course. And when the Protestant-dominated police force steps forward to provide the community center with badly needed equipment, people are resentful rather than grateful. Of course, it's plain that the police commissioner's motives are just political rather than altruistic. So trouble breaks out, and to show their disdain for police "charity," some of the young boxers, including Liam, decide to burn the new equipment. In the process, in a development reminiscent of the burning of Sal's pizza parlor in Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing, they manage to burn the entire gym. Such tragic self-destruction is born of attitudes among the IRA leadership. When Maggie's father, Joe (Brian Cox), tries to negotiate a cease fire, he's called "soft" and a "traitor to those of his brothers in prison" by firebrands like Harry (Gerard McSorely), the IRA "boss" of Danny's neighborhood. Clearly, it is not easy to chart a new path, to devise a method to bring the bloodshed to an end.

At points, though, The Boxer stumbles. Sheridan complicates things needlessly by making Liam jealous of his mother's chaste relationship with Danny. In fact, the filmmakers jettison this development about as clumsily as they introduce it. Elsewhere, we understand why Danny takes a professional boxing match in London but not why Ike is so offended by that move. In that match, it's not at all clear why the referee refuses to protect the Nigerian boxer Danny pummels to a standing knockout. And it seems outrageously unlikely that Danny would leave the ring and thus forfeit the match rather than risk hurting his opponent. He could, after all, punch the man in his arms if he didn't want to hit him in the head anymore.

There are even more serious missteps, however. The entire effort to make Danny's boxing at a "non-sectarian" match into a political statement is too undercooked to work. The fight seems small potatoes. And we aren't made privy to what Danny's thinking, how conscious he is that he's assuming a mantle of leadership provocative enough to require a car bombing in retaliation. Even more seriously, I worry that Sheridan and George may inadvertently (I hope inadvertently) make heroes of the "moderate" elements in the IRA. Joe is trying to make peace. But he never renounces his violent past, and even in the end his primary mode of action is to murder his opponents. Murder is still murder, even when the victims are guilty of murder themselves -- even when they are our enemies.

Sister Strife

FILM: Love Serenade
STARRING: Rebecca Frith, Miranda Otto
DIRECTOR: Shirley Barrett

Oh those daffy Australians. There must be something dizzy about living Down Under. Look at the films those folks produce: Strictly Ballroom, Muriel's Wedding, Kiss or Kill. Now you can add to the list something called Love Serenade, an utterly nutty little comedy about two sisters who fall for the same lousy guy.

Director Barrett (with George Shevtsov) adds Serenade to the nutty Australian comedy canon
Love Serenade captured writer/director Shirley Barrett the Camera D'Or at Cannes last year for best first feature. It's the story of the Hurley sisters, Vicki-Ann (Rebecca Frith), 26, and Dimity (Miranda Otto), 21. These two young women live together in the fictional outback town of Sunray, a dusty, tiny Nowhereville that produces agricultural products and few prospects. Vicki-Ann is the town hairdresser. Dimity is a waitress at the Chinese restaurant. Vicki-Ann is perky with romantic readiness. There doesn't seem to be an eligible man within a radius of a thousand miles, but Vicki-Ann is just sure the right guy will happen by any day. Dimity, on the other hand, seems dulled out by life. She doesn't seem to believe that the right guy or anything else of note will happen by in a thousand years. And then into Sunray drives Ken Sherry (George Shevtsov), a long-haired, multi-divorced, cool-shaded hipster in a sportscar and a recent appointment as resident disk jockey for the local radio station. Ken is the closest thing to celebrity this town is ever going to see. Why, as Vicki-Ann notes, he used to work in Brisbane! Chatterbox Vicki-Ann presumes the way to Ken's heart is through his stomach. Fix him a nice meal. How about a delicious chicken casserole? Dimity takes a more direct approach. She stops by, asks if Ken is lonely and takes off all her clothes. The way to a man's heart, she presumes, begins a bit lower than his stomach.

It's true that Barrett hasn't really figured out what to do for a third act with this piece. Dimity shows more spark than Vicki-Ann ever expected she possessed. Vicki-Ann fights back. The girls get thoroughly cross with each other. And then the picture limps home. It's also true that Barrett never makes sense of her Ken-as-fish business. Dimity's favorite activity is fishing. There are lots of references to fish. Ken owns a big stuffed fish. And it seems Ken has gills. OK, yes ... and?

There's plenty of fun along the way, however. Ken is a most delectable villain, all melodious tones and supercilious sense of himself. Listening to him express his views on the world is a laugh riot. He's full of 1970s self-realization and free love blather, and Shevtsov manages to deliver it without the campy wink-wink of Mike Meyers in Austin Powers. Even better is the work John Alansu delivers a Chinese chef and onetime Vicki-Ann paramour Albert Lee. The best scenes in the film come when Albert holds forth about his views on marriage and other matters of social behavior, including his fondness for nudism.

In sum, though Love Serenade doesn't come to much, it provides more than adequate pleasure getting there.

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