Jim Sturges and Ben Kingsley Share Ireland's 'Troubles' in 'Fifty Dead Men Walking'

Phase 4 Films

City Pulse | August 24, 2009
This explosive genre-buster about Ireland's '80s-era "troubles" centered in the town of Belfast, drills deep down into the true story of controversial IRA figure Martin McGartland (brilliantly played by Jim Sturges). McGartland worked as an undercover "tout" for the occupying British forces. The film's odd title refers roughly to the number of lives saved by McGartland's efforts, even though it meant eventually sending him on the run for the rest of his own life. Ben Kingsley delivers a thoroughly captivating performance as Fergus, a British Special Branch intelligence agent who mentors Martin through the ranks of the IRA, all the while undermining many of the organization's attempted attacks. Writer/director Kari Skogland (Stone Angel) based the fast-paced film on Martin McGartland's biographical book of the same title and manages to balance the material's intrinsic political conflict and suspense while getting inside the conflicted psyches of its main characters. There's a great filmmaker at work here and plenty of impressive supporting performances from the likes of Natalie Press (as Martin's girlfriend Lara), Kevin Zegers (as Martin's best friend Sean), and Rose McGowan (as IRA femme fatal Grace).

Topics don't come much hotter than the British occupation of Northern Ireland. You'd be hard-pressed to find someone to express any kind of pro-British opinion on the matter, even as the British Empire have since then become completely subordinate to US imperialism that's been busy committing far greater reaching atrocities than the Brits did in Belfast, in Afghanistan and Iraq. The genius of Fifty Dead Men Walking is the emotional connection it makes between the IRA's desperate fight for freedom, as viewed through Sean's eyes, and the British Military, as humanized by Fergus, and Martin, whose neutral abilities as a opportunist con man allow him entree into all worlds. The audience is allowed to empathize with multiple sides of a very complex issue via transparent characters locked in a tense ideological war. An ever looming question about the British military's integrity, as eventually lined up against Fergus's sincere promises to Martin, plays out in a display of narrative realism that doesn't moderate the British military's viciousness as equal to that of the IRA.

In response to the ever-present condition of thick Irish accents spoken at full tempo, Kari Skogland generously uses subtitles throughout the film to reinforce the film's quicksilver, multi-layered plot. Compared with the currently released Baader Meinhof Complex, which carries a similar theme of terrorist activity, Fifty Dead Men Walking throws down a heavy trump card because of the effortless way it substantiates its characters. At the heart of the story is a romantic connection between Martin and Lara. The birth of their first child is handled in such a way, with Fergus offering Martin a swig of whiskey outside of Lara's hospital room, that we get a organic surge of thematic import that doesn't substitute sentimentalism for emotional truth. The scene puts Lara in the audience's mind without showing her. In the situation, as with every other one that the actors share, Jim Sturges and Ben Kingsley play off one another with a familial receptivity that completes a circle of social encounter, toward explaining Martin's willingness to work as a traitor for a father figure that he trusts. There's a lot to understand -- politically and emotionally -- about Martin McGartland. Kari Skogland's film makes it happen with muscle, brains, and loins.

(Phase 4 Films) Rated R. 118 mins. (A) (Five Stars)
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