Maybe it’s because the situation has gone on for decades, maybe it’s because internecine warfare is made for drama, but the fierce “troubles” in Northern Ireland have had so many cinematic representations the conflict’s motto might well be “No justice, no peace, no end of movies.”
As a result, many of the key players in “The Boxer,” the latest look at the agonies of Belfast, have been involved in at least one previous film set in the North. Star Daniel Day-Lewis made “In the Name of the Father” with “The Boxer’s” director/co-writer Jim Sheridan and co-writer Terry George, and George himself directed “Some Mother’s Son,” which he and Sheridan also co-wrote.
All this practice means that the level of craft and storytelling in “The Boxer” is lean and effective and, under Sheridan’s strong direction, its story of a man trying to pick up the pieces of his life after 14 years’ imprisonment for Irish Republican Army activity initially plays like a story that hasn’t been told before.
But as “The Boxer” unfolds, its over-familiarity becomes a burden and, though it’s a long time coming, the core of the romantic side of its plot also turns out to be old hat. The film’s initially close-mouthed characters dissipate our sympathy once they start talking, and the key question becomes whether good acting can redeem borderline banal material.
One thing “The Boxer” doesn’t have to apologize for is Day-Lewis’ portrayal of 32-year-old Danny Flynn, who spent almost half his life behind bars. More of a chameleon than most leading men, Day-Lewis is believably hard and taciturn as a once-promising athlete who is well aware that he unwittingly tossed the heart of his athletic life away.
Known for throwing himself into his parts, Day-Lewis trained off and on for three years as a fighter, including time spent with Irish world featherweight boxing champion Barry McGuigan. He succeeded in turning himself into a world-class rope jumper and shadow boxer as well as a convincing ring tactician.
The one person most affected by Danny’s release is Maggie, played by Emily Watson. She was the boxer’s girlfriend before he went inside, and in the interim she has married his best friend and had a son with him.
The husband, whom we never see, is also imprisoned, and the code of loyal IRA wives insists that any kind of familiar contact between her and Danny is out of the question.
This inability to communicate works very much to the film’s advantage. The brooding and charismatic boxer wastes few words reconnecting with his old coach, Ike Weir (Ken Stott), and determining to reopen the nonsectarian Holy Family Boxing Club they both were affiliated with before his arrest.
Watson, memorable and Oscar-nominated in last year’s “Breaking the Waves,” is an actress who is Day-Lewis’ match in presence, and the scenes of their constrained early communication, marked by no more than the exchange of troubled, longing looks, are especially effective.
Inevitably, these two will at least talk to each other, and when they do, you wish they’d been aware of Diane Wiest’s celebrated “don’t speak” advice from “Bullets Over Broadway.” The high drama we’d imagined in our heads before these two became voluble turns out to be more involving than what they actually say.
Both the boxing saga and the romance play out against a background of standard-issue IRA dramatics. Maggie’s father is IRA district leader Joe Hamill, whose weary face shows the strains of constant battles with Harry, the local hothead. Harry gets high on constant violence and views the possible coming of peace as a betrayal of everything he’s worked for.
In the end, as one unconvincing plot twist follows another, “The Boxer” can’t sustain the initial interest it aroused. With Day-Lewis’ most effective work done without words, and Watson being constrained by the limits of an underdeveloped character, this film’s desire to illuminate the complexities of a terrible situation ends up unfulfilled.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: “The Boxer” Location: Spokane Valley Mall Credits: Directed by Jim Sheridan, starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Emily Watson, Gerard McSorley, Brian Cox, Ciaran Fitzgerald, Ken Stott Running time: 1:53 Rating: R