Directed by Jim Sheridan. Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Emily Watson, Ken Stott, Ciaran Fitzgerald, Brian Cox, Gerald Mcsorley. (1997, R, 120 min.)
REVIEWED By Russell Smith, Fri., Jan. 9, 1998
After 14 years in a British prison for aiding the IRA, former teen boxing prodigy Danny Flynn (Day-Lewis) returns to his hometown of Belfast, Northern Ireland. His salad days of bus-bombing and pub-torching long past, Danny now wants only to resume his pugilistic career and open a training gym so boys in the old neighborhood will have alternatives to their dismal pastimes of shooting heroin and Protestants. He'd also like to sort a few things out with his former sweetheart, Maggie (Watson), though a full-blown reconciliation seems out of the question because she's married to a still-imprisoned IRA man. I suspect you can run with the plot summary from here. Danny's peacemaking efforts get him crosswise with the local hardliners. His and Maggie's futile efforts to hide their rekindled love from the neighbors further assure his pariahdom. Familiar stuff, this. If the Irish weren't so incredibly eloquent in bemoaning their own suicidal pathologies, sheer redundancy would doom movies like The Boxer to well-deserved extinction. Director Jim Sheridan, who has collaborated with writer Terry George on In the Name of the Father and Some Mother's Son clearly understands the weariness that inevitably consumes not only long, seemingly irresolvable conflicts but stories about them. That awareness is reflected in The Boxer's appearance, tone, and plotline. Chris Menges' cinematography is so unrelievedly gray that objects and shadows seem to blend together, along with the people who move among them. Nothing that the characters try to do -- pursuing a love affair, reviving a career, achieving some humble social good -- quite works out. All their efforts are suppressed or smothered stillborn by a climate of dull, grinding fear and hatred. Predictably, this creates a certain emotional flatness in much of the film. But thanks largely to the richly insinuative acting of Day-Lewis and Watson (the sensational actress who elevated Breaking the Waves from contrived melodrama to something sublime), we're profoundly moved by the power of Maggie and Danny's intentions and desires, if not their actions. Though the two leads share nothing more sexually overt than a brief, fully clothed kiss, their mutual passion is as “explicit” as anything that could be conveyed by hours of heaving, glycerine-spritzed buttocks. The Boxer's abrupt and surprising resolution represents a logical result of the weariness with violence which has steadily accumulated throughout Sheridan's Irish “trilogy.” Sheridan and George sure can't be accused of putting too fine a point on their fight-game metaphor. Even the parrot-voiced lady who sat behind me presciently announcing each major plot turn (“My God! That car's gonna blow up!”) probably grasped the dramatic equivalence of The Troubles and the tightly confined mayhem of the boxing ring. But the sense of release and renewed possibility created when tired, morally exhausted warriors -- as it were -- step out of the ring is as powerful as it is obvious. As a prominent Irish-sympathizing Brit once said, war is over if you want it.