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We’ve been dropping the British Empire for the last six months!

In the Name of the Father
(1993)

(SPOILERS) The trouble with the Troubles is that they tend to make for rather dreary, respectable, eggshell-treading fare. Unless, of course, they’re entering into full-blown genre territory (Hidden Agenda, ’71; there’s a film to be made about the funding of the various paramilitary organisations and their infiltration, but that puts you squarely in the kind of terrorism territory Hollywood wouldn’t want to touch). Barring the odd, unfathomable decision to make a Fiddy Cent movie, Jim Sheridan has mostly spent his cinematic career charting the Irish experience in various forms and settings, several of which relate to the repercussions of British rule (this, Some Mother’s Son and Bloody Sunday). In the Name of the Father has going for it the “wrongly imprisoned” subgenre, and its intentions are at least laudable, but its failing is that that of an over-emotive cry for attention, one emblazoned with big names before the camera and across the soundtrack, while flagrantly sacrificing forensic detail at the altar of outrage.

Indeed, there’s almost a wilful “Now they’re proved innocent, we’re not behoved to document the facts” approach in prioritising empathic dues. The crux of the movie, from that perspective, is Gerry Conlon (Daniel Day Lewis) sharing prison time with dad Giuseppe (Pete Postlethwaite); they never actually did, and they were commonly held in separate prisons to boot. Joe McAndrew (Don Baker) was invented. Likewise, Gareth Peirce (the very luvvie Emma Thompson) represented Gerry, not Giuseppe, meaning the dramatic mistake that turns the case (she is handed Gerry’s file in error), makes for a grand movie moment but a less than accurate one (Peirce, as solicitor, didn’t appear in court either, but that’s a less egregious sleight of hand, on the overall scale). Notably, producer Gabriel Byrne – who initially considered starring – publicly expressed that he wasn’t so keen on the numerous changes.

If changes go to make a dramatically better movie, fair enough – this is a dramatisation, not a documentary – but Sheridan must surely have been aware any significant diversion from the record would be a minefield, that the movie would be scrutinised particularly closely, and that such an approach might well get in the way of the main point: documenting a heinous stitch-up, whereby none of those perverting the course of justice were brought to justice themselves (nevertheless, In the Name of the Father went on to earn a Best Picture Oscar nomination – an arena where inaccuracies are often the meat and potatoes of poisonous counter-campaigns – and the second most popular movie ever, at the time, in Ireland).

Instead of proving dramatically satisfying, though, and thus to an extent mitigating its fabrications, In the Name of the Father offers a succession of overstatements. One might reasonably have assumed the bare bones of the case would have been incendiary enough. In the conception of Sheridan and co-writer Terry George, Gerry is a scally and dad is a saint. Their generational conflict is inelegantly crowbarred into conversation at every opportunity, be it dad berating an acid-addled Gerry or Gerry throwing churlish tantrums at his parent: “Why do you always follow me when I do something wrong?” It’s Steptoe and Son, but with fewer laughs.

Particularly absurd is his anecdote of dad’s illness from “working in the paint shed”: “You’ve been a victim all your life”. Giuseppe has no sides; he’s there solely to wilt nobly. Which may or may not reflect the actual man, but it makes for a less than stimulating screen pairing, and so fails to justify the expediency (I should stress that Postlethwaite was a great actor, so none of this is on him).

There's a frequent reliance on broad strokes to stimulate cheap drama, be it the hissable establishment or Gerry’s moral dawning when a prison warden (John Benfield) is set alight. Once Peirce is involved, every scene becomes a variation on Emma looking earnest and Daniel acting indignant. Later, the more dedicated but frustrated Gerry winds himself up in audio tape; because Sheridan lacks the necessary register, the scene simply comes off as faintly ridiculous. As opposed to a heartrending depiction of a man unravelling (perhaps too, in that sense, the metaphor is a little on the nose).

Sheridan employs Hendrix, Dylan and the Stones on the soundtrack early in the proceedings, along with a ’60s fashion dress-up box approach straight out of Austin Powers; such choices further distinguish the starkness of the material from the fictionalisation of its presentation. Squatter Gerry instantly falls in with the impossible-looking Saffron Burrows as an irresistible hippy chick (also present is Highlander’s Beatie “Aye, Blossom” Edney as Carole Richardson). There are some fine actors filling the ranks – John Lynch, Corin Redgrave, Tom Wilkinson – but also one-time bookies’ favourite Doctor Who Paterson Joseph, employing a hilarious Jamaican accent straight out of The Lenny Henry Show.

Dedicated Day-Lewis did three days of method incarceration and interrogation in preparation for the part. Rather than a truly method fifteen years’ hard time. He’s fine as Gerry at 35 – not so much as a twenty-year-old – but his efforts often fall at the hurdle of Sheridan’s melodramatic approach to character and dialogue. According to Richard O’Rawe, writer of In the Name of the Son, “Conlon found the film (partly because of its untruths but also because of its truths, particularly Pete Postlethwaite’s uncanny impersonation of Guiseppe) so painful he probably never watched it through”. The Maguires were not best pleased at not being consulted, and Sheridan soon became used to weathering the storms of discontent: “I was accused of lying in In the Name of the Father, but the real lie was saying it was a film about the Guildford Four when really it was about a non-violent parent”.

Sheridan turned the debate into a political/national one, and I don’t doubt some of the objections had such a basis, but nevertheless: “Well, the truth is -- here's what goes on. I got attacked in England for changing the facts, you know. And I said to them eventually, ‘What?’ and they said, ‘Well, for putting the father and the son in the same prison.’ I said, ‘By putting them in the same cell, I made you look more humane than you were, and you're mad at me for making you look humane.’ So you've got to think of what that tells you”. Indeed you do. It’s a weak defence, really, the whataboutery of saying the fault is with the accusers, who have a record, and just look what they did, rather than addressing the point.

What you get with In the Name of the Father is a package: an authorised adaptation of Conlon’s autobiography (Proved Innocent); an Oscar-winning actor and an Oscar-nominated director working together again (and getting nominated again); Brand Oirish contributions from Bono and Sinead. Maybe Sheridan’s right, and all that and his finessing, were legitimate, ensuring In the Name of the Father reached a wider audience than it otherwise would (in contrast, Some Mother’s Son made limited impact): “I think that film will have proved to have done a lot of good”.

Whether or not that’s the case, it’s symptomatic of a picture that’s at best worthy rather than vital or supremely compelling. There’s more grit here than in The Trial of the Chicago 7, but Gerry striding across courtroom benches in vindication is straight from the same textbook; Aaron Sorkin likely approved. Sheridan would later give the War on Terror a familial spin, and one might argue such digressions from the central issue are problematic in themselves, failing to examine the underlying situation and thus indirectly supporting or airbrushing the overlying narrative. In the Name of the Father, like My Left Foot before it, made quite a splash, but its stature as a piece of filmmaking, above and beyond any concerns over its authenticity, reflects an eye for material tailor made to stir a primal response rather than a considered one.


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