The real-life career and 1996 murder of crusading Dublin journalist Veronica Guerin gets an adequate tribute in “When the Sky Falls,” a fictional drama-thriller based on her final years. Realistic direction by John Mackenzie, which recalls but doesn’t best his classic gangland drama “The Long Good Friday,” is well served by a flavorsome cast of character actors and a gruff, no-nonsense perf by Patrick Bergin as a seasoned cop. Overall, however, pic lacks a sense of ambient drama and emotional identification with the lead character, precisely but too coolly played by Joan Allen, who never gets under the skin of the journo. Moderate business looks likely, with interest stronger in the U.S. and Ireland than the U.K., where Irish-themed pics rarely play well.
In a killing that made shock headlines and provoked new anti-crime measures in Ireland, Guerin was shot dead in her car in broad daylight on June 26, 1996, following a relatively brief career in journalism. Initially working as an accountant and in public relations, she became a reporter in 1990, at age 31, and within a couple of years built a rep as a crime journalist, exposing local gangsters’ involvement in Dublin’s drug scene. In ’94, warning shots were fired at her home, and the following year, she was shot in the leg.
Though not credited in the film, Guerin worked for eight months as a consultant on the initial script. Her character is repped by “Sinead Hamilton” (Allen), already a renowned reporter at the bestselling Sunday Globe (standing in for the Sunday Independent) who has angered both politicians and police with her articles on their failure to control the city’s drug problems. In a striking opening reel that combines grit and theatricality, brutal criminal Martin Shaughnessy (Pete Postlethwaite) colludes with Hamilton and is then spectacularly slain.
Hamilton taps her underworld informer, auto mechanic Mickey O’Fagan (Jimmy Smallhorne), for a lead on the murder. All signs — including testimony by another criminal, John Cosgrave (Liam Cunningham) — seem to point to an IRA revenge killing for Shaughnessy’s involvement with the Loyalists.
At this point, after teasingly leading the story in a more political direction, the script quietly takes a left turn, constructing a much more conventional three-way drama centered on Hamilton, frustrated cop Mackey (Bergin) and a recently released crime lord, Dave Hackett (Gerard Flynn). Though the writers try to disguise the swerve with plenty of other characters entering the frame, there’s a distinct sound of shuffling feet coming off the screen.
Hackett has finagled his way out of stir after serving only two years of a 10-year sentence for drug peddling, and Mackey, who spent five years of his life putting Hackett behind bars, is understandably ticked off. Though he has no affinity for the press, Mackey feeds Hamilton information to try to entrap Hackett for good. For Hamilton, too, it turns into a personal crusade, helped in the latter stages by the IRA, anxious to rid itself of insinuations by other journalists that it’s involved in the drug trade.
Filmmakers construct plenty of incidents to hold the aud’s attention — a car chase, firebombing, club raid, continuing articles by Hamilton — but there’s a lack of emotional undertow to all the physical drama. Allen, normally a fine actress, seems miscast as Hamilton, finessing her character’s obsessive drive into a performance that’s far too brittle and not humanized enough by token scenes of home life with her husband (Kevin McNally) and young son.
As Bergin and Flynn attack their colorful roles with gusto, Allen’s character is forced to share center stage, to the detriment of the movie overall. Though, to the film’s credit, it’s made quite clear that Hamilton is obsessive to the point of recklessness, she’s essentially reduced to a participant in events rather than a prime mover, weakening the impact of her demise. (Per production notes, Michael Sheridan’s original script was much more focused on Hamilton as a lone warrior.)
Apart from some poorly lit interiors, production values are generally fine, with a modestly budgeted, unglossy look and good use of Dublin locations. Allen’s OK stab at a Dublin accent is always clear, but several others are very thick, causing potential problems for non-Irish viewers. An end caption notes that the pic is “inspired” by Guerin’s life.
Separately, Jerry Bruckheimer is producing a similar pic, “Chasing the Dragon: The Veronica Guerin Story,” with Joel Schumacher developing and directing. There is no studio attached yet.