Miscarried justice often provides the vehicle for emotionally wrenching drama and histrionic fireworks, and such is the case in spades with “In the Name of the Father.” The award-winning “My Left Foot” duo of writer/director Jim Sheridan and star Daniel Day-Lewis have reteamed to tell the real-life story of Gerry Conlon, an Irish man who spent 15 years in a British prison before his wrongful sentence was overturned. Star power, strong reviews and absorbing nature of the case should overcome various potential commercial negatives to secure a solid B.O. verdict.
This is not the sort of film one normally expects from a Hollywood major at Christmastime: It’s highly political, inflammatory, partisan, foreign and far from comforting. It also deals with a subject — the ongoing struggle over the fate of Northern Ireland — that is hardly appealing to many viewers, although, ironically, Universal could benefit from the current headlines about possible breakthroughs in the peace process.
Gerry Conlon was arrested for the 1974 bombing of a bar in Guildford, London, that killed five people. On the basis of coerced confessions, Conlon, his friend Paul Hill and two others who came to be known as the Guildford Four were convicted and sentenced to long terms, as were other completely innocent bystanders, including Conlon’s own father and aunt, who were charged with conspiracy.
It wasn’t until 1989 that the convictions were overturned, forced by the revelation that crucial evidence that would have exonerated the defendants had been deliberately withheld by the Crown. The legal ramifications of this malfeasance are still pending.
In unfolding this outrage, Sheridan and co-scenarist Terry George are stuck with the basic liability of the format — a built-in predictability of the dramatic arc encompassing table-setting, the crime itself, false arrest, trial and imprisonment, needless suffering, resolve to fight back against the odds, new trial and eventual vindication.
But the filmmakers have invigorated and enriched the story through the use of a thousand details, a strong sense of time and place, outstanding characterizations and a display of energy and cinematic flair that marks an advance on “My Left Foot.”
In an excitingly staged action sequence, Conlon (Day-Lewis) is first seen as a rebellious youth on the streets of Belfast, caught up in a pitched battle between British troops and locals. Sent to London by his father, Conlon, along with Paul Hill (John Lynch), falls in with some hippies and befriends flower children Paddy Armstrong (Mark Sheppard) and Carole Richardson (Beatie Edney).
On the night of the Guildford bombing, Conlon and Hill are shown to be resting in a park, where they meet a homeless man. Later they rob a prostitute’s flat. Picked up by police, they are held under the newly enacted Prevention of Terrorism Act and eventually knuckle under to days of interrogation.
Day-Lewis engagingly conveys the breezy, devil-may-care quality of the youthful Conlon, whose indulgence in petty crime and casual brushes with politics in no way made him a terrorist but whose profile precisely fits the British prescription for one.
Shockingly, Conlon’s father, the incongruously named Giuseppe (Pete Postlethwaite), is not only convicted but is imprisoned in the same cell with his son, which provides the film with a strange, emotionally potent, unanticipated extra dimension. Gerry has never respected or felt close to his father, and initially spurns his patient, dogged tactics of fighting the long legal fight to clear their names.
Much more attractive is the real bombing culprit Joseph McAndrew (a wonderfully steely Don Baker), whose admission of guilt has proven useless to the Guildford Four’s appeal and who continues his troublemaking in prison.
But the close quarters eventually draw father and son together, and the tenacious work of committed solicitor Gareth Peirce (Emma Thompson) finally exposes the government’s lies and earns the victims a new trial.
Given the blatant outrageousness of the injustice under examination here, Sheridan has little trouble getting the viewer’s blood boiling on behalf of his protagonists. Conlon is seen as an essentially sweet, if sometimes wayward, guy in no way prepared for the political and legalistic maze he’s plunged into. But prison brings out surprising sides to him, from a taste for the drugs he shares with a friendly Rastafarian inmate to an ability to care for his father in a way he never could have guessed.
Pic reaches its actorly heights in the intense, intimate scenes between Day-Lewis and Postlethwaite, as the former conveys Gerry’s growth in the face of deep despair and frustration while the latter reveals innate qualities previously unsuspected. Both thesps are utterly first-rate.
In a decidedly secondary role, Thompson is the picture of a single-minded crusader, and Corin Redgrave scores as the hissable British heavy who railroads the Irish suspects. Other supporting players register in spirited fashion.
Film’s tangy, rough quality is aided by Peter Biziou’s vibrant, not overly composed location lensing, Gerry Hambling’s dynamic editing and the effective and loud rock score by Trevor Jones, with original songs by Bono, Gavin Friday and Maurice Seezer.
Many similar stories have been told before on the big and small screens, but the particulars here have been related with such authority and conviction as to fully warrant their airing.