Fifty Dead Men Walking
- Directed and written by Kari Skogland
- Starring Jim Sturgess, Ben Kingsley, Natalie Press
- Classification: 14A
The world premiere of Fifty Dead Men Walking at last year's Toronto International Film Festival was a rather fraught affair. Until the last minute, the man whose real-life adventures "inspired" the movie threatened an injunction to halt its much-anticipated screening.
The eventual happy ending notwithstanding, all the legalistic to-ing and fro-ing did compromise initial reception of the film as a film -instead of, say, a thinly veiled biography, an act of treachery, a bargaining chip or grist for a news story.
Ten months later, such controversies having faded like the morning mist on Dublin harbour, Fifty Dead Men Walking' s commercial release permits both TIFF habitués and newcomers to see the movie pretty much as Canadian-born director/screenwriter/co-producer Kari Skogland intended.
And it's a pretty fine film, thanks largely to the performances (and look) of its crackerjack cast, as well as Jonathan Freeman's restless, gritty cinematography and a lickety-split script less interested in moralistic tub-thumping and point-making ironies than the desperate circumstances of its characters.
Set mostly in Belfast in the late 1980s, Fifty Dead Men Walking is the story of Martin McGartland (Jim Sturgess ), a free-spirited, quick-tempered, nominally Catholic 22-year-old who makes his living hustling stolen high-end clothes and shoes. Northern Ireland at this time is deep in the Troubles - the murderous conflict between the Irish Republican Army and the Ulster Defence Association, with units of the British Army blasting away in the middle - but Martin is trying to survive above this fray. When he does find himself joining the IRA's lower echelons, it's with a non-committal shrug and motives having more to do with personal wants (for a car, a bit of cash, a sense of belonging) than any ideological conversion.
The same reasoning underpins his later decision to agree to be recruited as a mole by a British Special Branch interrogations officer code-named Fergus (Ben Kingsley). By now, Martin knows the IRA can deal out some very harsh justice and his conscience is bothered by the seeming randomness of those it targets. But the choice to fink for the Brits is fuelled, again, by immediate concerns, most pressingly the pregnancy of his girlfriend Lara (Natalie Press). Kicked out of her parents' house, she and her heretofore feckless swain need to find a place of their own to bring up baby.
Skogland does a good job of heightening the tensions in Martin's life as he finds himself being drawn ever deeper into the workings of the IRA (partly via the paternal ministrations of IRA chieftain Mickey Johnson, superbly played by Tom Collins) at the same time as he falls under the similarly father-like spell woven by the hypnotic Kingsley.
Something has to give, of course. Who, the viewer wonders, will ultimately tear Martin's playhouse down? Will it be the IRA, which Martin knows from one horrifying episode will torture and kill traitors in its midst? Or the Brits, who in the vast carelessness of a dirty, decades-long war, know Martin's usefulness has a best-before date, regardless of Fergus's protective instincts and the estimated 50 lives his charge's undercover work has saved?
There's a wonderful authenticity to this film (or, perhaps more accurately, it fakes its authenticity well), not least because it was shot in Belfast and environs, using lots of pale-faced locals. Matching the damp grubbiness of the locale are Skogland's characters, clearly chosen for performing smarts and plausibility of appearance instead of Hollywood prettiness (the only exception being Rose McGowan, as a red-tressed IRA Mata Hari).
A haggardly handsome bundle of nervous, nervy energy, Sturgess more than holds his own in his scenes with Sir Ben. While we're given virtually no back-story on Martin, Sturgess's patter and body language effectively convey a history of dreams deferred, of poverty, misused intelligence, thwarted ambition and deep need.
Some viewers may be put off by the thick accent Sturgess and many of his associates use. Skogland seemed to acknowledge as much last September when she told me she was thinking of inserting subtitles for the commercial release. They're not here, which means attention must be paid. Sometimes the results are unintentionally comical even when you think you have pricked up your ears: In a scene in which Sturgess begins his wooing of Press, I could have sworn he asks, "Whas yer fave'rit Bond?" (What do I know of the courting rituals of Belfasters in the late 1980s?) A minute or so later, when she reels off names like U2 and Prince, I realized the question was, "What's your favourite band?"
Irritant, or cinéma vérité hallmark of authenticity? I leave it to the viewer to decide on the accent "issue." I was more irked by the intrusive bray of the soundtrack and by Skogland's occasional stylistic lapses - a momentum-slackening voiceover by Kingsley simplistically explaining the Troubles, or a hoary montage illustrating Martin's life-saving work.
Overall, though, Fifty Dead Men Walking woos and wins as a thriller. The menace is palpable, and the stakes never feel less than a matter of life or death.
Kari Skogland, the writer, director and producer of Fifty Dead Men Walking, will participate in a Q&A after the 1 p.m. screening Saturday at Toronto's Varsity Cinemas (55 Bloor St. West).