It is an understatement to say that Northern Ireland’s woes have posed a challenge to film-makers. The most recent period of violent unrest, the Troubles, persisted over three decades. It was an increasingly squalid, often invisible war fought out between combatants who had become equally morally compromised. The barbaric terrorism of those wishing to overthrow the state and a state response that included collusion with murderous paramilitaries is not the stuff of heroic war movies.
The other problem film-makers faced was that the bloodletting had already been televised, day in, day out, night after night. And as the years went on, with no end in sight to the killing, there were few subjects to make viewers change television channels more quickly than a programme on the seemingly intractable Troubles.
Understandably, most filmmakers shied away from addressing the subject and, as a consequence, there has been little of note on screen. Films such as The Devil’s Own and Prayer for the Dying that tried to give a one-sided heroic narrative were seen for what they were: a comic book response to a complex historical labyrinth. The few that did attempt to show the complexity of the situation (Cal and Hidden Agenda) struggled cinematically as they had too much politics and too little drama.
Nonetheless, there have been some notable exceptions. Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out is a curious, dream-like meditation on the nature of life and death played out against the backdrop of a dying IRA gunman on the run through the streets of Belfast. More a testament to the genius of post-war British cinema than cinéma vérité from Belfast, it nevertheless captures something of the faux romantic root at the core of so much of Ireland’s political violence.
In the early 1980s Harry’s Game was a television drama that, for the first time in relation to Northern Ireland, played out the complexities of the Troubles in a decidedly unromantic fashion, with conflicted loyalties and moral ambivalence at the plot’s centre. Decades after that, Fifty Dead Men Walking proved a brutal, believable thriller. That it worked as a feature film was, no doubt, on account of its basis in fact: namely, the real-life memoirs of a police informant.
A drama about informants pales, however, when placed alongside the latest documentary from Alex Gibney, No Stone Unturned. Its subject matter is the murder of six men at a pub in the village of Loughinisland by Loyalist paramilitaries in 1994 and the allegation of state collusion. No one has been convicted for the deaths.
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