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You might have heard of The Crying Game for reasons other than its political narrative, a fact that only emphasises the importance and depth of the film. Directed by Neil Jordan, the film stars Irish actor Stephen Rea as Fergus, an Irish Republican Army (IRA) volunteer roped into a kidnap plot. Fergus bonds with the hostage, a British soldier played by Forest Whitaker, and promises to seek out and protect his girlfriend should the inevitable happen. The promise (and his desertion of the IRA) leads Fergus to London, where the plot and themes pivot, while the strong characters and performances keep us intrigued.
The most recent film on the list, ’71 follows Gary Hook – a British soldier on the run in hostile territory, after a house search gone wrong in Belfast at the height of the Troubles. Primarily a thriller, the film concentrates on the humanity of the characters, successfully avoiding sectarian sympathies of either slant. Similar to 1979’s The Warriors, the film uses the city as a character in and of itself. Belfast is a dark and surprising element in the story, and this film keeps us as naive and scared as the protagonist.
Before most of us knew who Michael Fassbender was, he turned out this excellent performance as Bobby Sands, who died in 1981 after a 66-day hunger strike in Northern Ireland’s the Maze prison. The film effectively contrasts the austerity and hardness of the prison against the resilience and ultimate fragility of the human body. It would be difficult for the story not to skew toward the Republican point of view, but ultimately, it’s the resilience of the human character that comes through, and not necessarily a particular political statement.
Documenting the infamous events of the 30th January 1972, Bloody Sunday concentrates on the confusion and fear of those 24 hours, in which British soldiers shot dead 13 civil rights protesters marching in Derry. Director Paul Greengrass employs a gritty hand-held style to keep the viewer on street level, heightening the tension. The acclaimed film missed out on Academy Award consideration because it was broadcast on television (ITV) before a cinematic release, going against a rule preventing any film shown on TV within six months of its cinema release from being entitled to a nomination.
Hammering home the paranoia and mutual anger of the time, In the Name of the Father arguably exposes the nerves of the Troubles more than any other film on this list. It centres on the aftermath of the IRA-perpetrated Guildford pub bombings in 1974. Daniel Day-Lewis plays central character Gerry Conlon, who is accused of the bombing as part of the Guildford Four. The wrongly convicted Conlon must fight his way through injustice and brutality within the criminal justice system.
Cal focuses less on direct violence and touches instead on themes of guilt and obsession. It follows the titular character’s involvement in the murder of a Royal Ulster Constabulary officer by fellow IRA operatives. Haunted by his role in the killing, Cal is compelled to make some kind of atonement to the wife of the murdered soldier, ultimately beginning an affair with her. While set in the Troubles, the film handles universal themes that we may have seen before, but it executes them compellingly.
The timing and scale of the 1998 Omagh bombing so late in the period known as the Troubles was a genuine shock. This film depicts the Real IRA car-bombing of the town of Omagh, which killed 31 people, and was the biggest single atrocity of the conflict. Like Bloody Sunday, it documents the fear and confusion of the event itself, but also its aftermath, and the search by the victims’ families for answers and justice.
Primarily a character piece, Five Minutes of Heaven tackles the issue of peace and reconciliation in the context of lingering emotions stirred up during and after the Troubles. James Nesbitt plays Joe Griffin, who is chauffeured to a TV studio to meet Liam Neeson’s character, Alistair Little. Little is a former Ulster Volunteer Force member who in 1975 – aged 17 – murdered Joe’s 19-year-old brother. The meeting, organised as a televised truth and reconciliation project, doesn’t go ahead, but the pair meet again in a less polished setting. The performances of Neeson and Nesbitt effortlessly carry off this dialogue-heavy script.
While not as impactful as other films on this list, Patriot Games brings a Hollywood reprieve to the more harrowing takes on the Troubles. Set in both London and the United States, Patriot Games pits Harrison Ford’s Jack Ryan against Sean Bean’s IRA operative who, once foiled by Ryan, makes things personal. The Troubles only really feature as a plot device in what is ultimately a revenge thriller, but it’s an excellent revenge thriller nonetheless.
Running a relatively short 39 minutes and with no narrative to speak of, Elephant is an unusual film. It depicts a series of 18 murders with no backstory or characterisation. There is very little dialogue, and the film is shot with a stoic detachment. The repetition and pointlessness of the film mirror perfectly the senseless and seemingly never-ending violence of the Troubles.
Neil Jordan teams up once again with Stephen Rea in this film noir-ish revenge thriller. Rea plays Danny, a saxophone player with a travelling band, who witnesses the murder of his manager and a deaf-mute girl. The noir element stems both from the music and Jordan’s efforts to mimic (or pay tribute to) stoic mid-century Italian cinema, which is referenced in the film. While not the greatest work of Jordan’s nor Rea’s, it is worth a watch for its atmospheric themes of violence and revenge.
Known for his social commentaries on working class communities, director Mike Leigh eschews the need for a plot in this made-for-television film, concentrating on everyday life on either side of the sectarian divide. It covers four days – July 10-13, 1984 – during which two couples give birth to their firstborns, coinciding with the Ulster Protestant celebration day of July 12th. The almost mundane nature of the film adds texture to the impact the Troubles had on the lives of ordinary people.