Daniel Day-Lewis is one of those rare actors who might be called consummate, yet he is not visibly self-congratulatory while working. He's created a gallery of characters--the crippled, cosmically outraged Christy Brown in My Left Foot, the tuxedoed waxwork Cyril in A Room With a View, the fairy-tale hero Hawkeye in The Last of the Mohicans, the mild-mannered seducer Tomas in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Johnny in My Beautiful Laundrette, and others--that, for range of style and depth of interpretation, could rival that of just about any living film actor.
Yet none of these performances feels like a stunt, a mere display of range. In every case, the sense that Day-Lewis gives off is one of near-reverence--it's as if he can't believe his luck in being allowed to embody such remarkable people, and wouldn't think of letting his actor's ego interfere with presenting them fully. The same may happily be said about his latest characterization, that of Gerry Conlon, the hero of In the Name of the Father.
Conlon was a none-too-promising Belfast youth who had relocated to London in the early 70s looking for a new start, and got one the hard way. After a period as hippie communards and later as homeless petty thieves, he and his friend Paul Hill, along with another Irish friend and his English girlfriend (together, they came to be known as the Guildford Four), were arrested. They spent 15 years in prison, wrongly accused of the hideous bombing of a suburban London pub.
Horrifyingly, several members of the Four's families, including Conlon's father and aunt, were also arrested and harshly sentenced as accomplices to this crime. Conlon's father eventually died in prison in 1980, nine years before an English lawyer named Gareth Peirce presented solid evidence that not only were all of these people innocent, but that the police had knowingly suppressed evidence proving that they were. All of the convictions were overturned.
How did this happen? The twists of fate that led the authorities to suspect Conlon and his friends--dumb, scroungy street kids who might have found the challenge of making a sandwich taxing--of being criminal masterminds in the first place would seem almost farcical if they weren't so tragic.
The obscenity was that the error was left willfully uncorrected. In response to the Guildford bombings, the British government hastily enacted a law called the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which permitted police to detain terrorism suspects for up to seven days without counsel. Those who stridently gripe that this country's criminal justice system "gives the criminal too many rights" should check out this story to see what quickly happens to the innocent when a society doesn't give the criminal too many rights.
The police, under pressure to provide a scapegoat for the bombings, used those seven days to coerce, through a combination of physical and verbal abuse and threats to their families, false confessions from Hill and then Conlon. By the time the two went to trial, the police already knew they weren't guilty. The police had questioned a witness who provided Conlon and Hill with an alibi, but suppressed the information.
It's one of those great true-life political melodramas that no dramatist would have the nerve to invent, but which, being true, no dramatist could resist. In the Name of the Father's director, Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot), renders it, for the most part, with crackling force. After a gut-punch prologue reenacting the bombing, Sheridan flashes back to Belfast to start the film proper with the best ethnic riot I've seen in a nondocumentary movie (I was in a real ethnic riot once, and can attest to this scene's authenticity). Conlon accidentally sparks it when some Brit soldiers mistake him for an IRA sniper, though he's up to nothing more political than stealing scrap metal from a rooftop.
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Not long after, we're shown the monstrous "interrogation" by which Conlon and Hill (John Lynch) are made to confess, and then the Kafkaesque, comic nightmare of their trial. Sheridan keeps piling on one virtuoso sequence after another this way, until it seems as if In the Name of the Father may turn out to be a classic. But about midpoint, the film begins to lose its impetus, to stumble a little, as the focus is shifted from the facts in the case to Conlon's changing relationship with his father, Guiseppe (the fine Pete Postlethwaite), now his cellmate.
When Gerry and Guiseppe meet in jail for the first time, the first thing out of Gerry's mouth is a long, involved monologue about how he's been haunted all his life by Guiseppe's failure to praise him after a football win. It's the clumsy first step by which Sheridan and his co-screenwriter, Terry George (adapting Conlon's book Proved Innocent), attempt to create a link between Gerry, prisoner of the state, and Gerry, prisoner of his old man's disapproval.
Day-Lewis gives the monologue his formidable all, but the connection remains abstract, forced. Finding peace with his father may indeed have been the part of Conlon's imprisonment that he found most significant, but it isn't the part that makes his story interesting to us. The emphasis on it is a dramatic miscalculation--the investigation by Gareth Peirce (a small part, well-played by Emma Thompson) takes a cramped back seat to scenes of father-and-son bonding, which are touching enough but familiar, and which seem pale in the story's context.
Still, it would be absurd to suggest on this basis that In the Name of the Father isn't worth seeing. In its best moments, Sheridan's direction is as gripping as any you'll see at the movies now, and Day-Lewis gives another beautiful and fearless performance, straight from the bottom of his soul.