50 Dead Men Walking
, 26 Nov 2009
50 Dead Men Walking is just as you would expect from a hard edged drama based on the life of an IRA member and informant. Its gutsy and gritty, deals with some hard issues, from a very murky history where not all the facts are really known. To make a film in such a muddle is a brave endeavour, and director Kari Skogland makes a decent go of it. However there are a few issues.
Its based on the story of Martin McGartland (Jim Sturgess), who we are abruptly introduced to when a masked man empties a clip into him as he gets in his car. I think from that point you get a pretty good idea that he was a wanted man and we flashback to a young twenty-something streetwise punk, who sells stolen clothes to earn a buck and gives British Army soldiers a fairly torrid time. His attitude to the British brings him to the attention of members of the IRA who bring him in as a low level runner. However, the British Special Branch also identify him as a useful tout, with handler Fergus (Wig, on top of Ben Kingsley) persuading the tearaway with the lure of money, cars but mostly the promise that he can be the difference between life and death.
This McGartland isnt a British fan. Hes not doing this because he believes in the other side. But having born witness to a few brutal attacks (one of his friends kneecapped, a car bomb that he helped deliver) he doesnt believe in the way the IRA go about things. He is also somewhat cocky at first, believing himself to be something of a modern day James Bond. Only when he sees for himself what could happen to him does he realise the seriousness of his involvement.
Director Skogland walks the viewer through the political back story, injecting scenes to help us understand the uprising from the start while also name tagging the key players so we understand their relevance and importance. This might be seen as counter-intuitive, as most viewers would have knowledge of the Troubles, but I have to admit I didnt know all of the ins and outs so found it to be quite a useful device to help me understand the environment and the difficulties that people faced.
50 Dead Men is also laced with some strong individual performances none more so then Jim Sturgess himself. He has to carry the entire film and any lesser actor would have struggled to put across with conviction this complicated character, cheeky and brash, yet with a well hidden intelligence. He has plenty to play with, many complexities to put across and he does a great job of doing so. Ben Kingsley as you would expect is also a lynchpin, although does distractingly draw your eye at first with his strange hairpiece and accent.
The main problem though is that while these performances are themselves strong, with each other they feel all wrong. This is partly down to the writing, and partly down to the direction. The script makes large jumps in time on quite a regular basis, which are covered sometimes by montages, or sometimes not at all. This therefore makes it difficult to get your bearing as to how much time has elapsed and ruins the films flow. Also it makes the characters relation to each other difficult to understand, and when your film is based on the central pairing of an IRA informant and a Special Branch handler you need to believe in their relationship.
Initially it begins with a certain amount of hostility, but then grows into something akin to a father-son bond. The problem is that with the jumps it feels false and unconvincing. This is no fault on the actors, they give it a good go, but theres nothing they can do to make it any better. The same goes for Martins relationship with his girlfriend, Lara (Natalie Press) which seems to move very quickly from courting, to sexual, to fatherhood in the blink of an eye. With this style of screenplay and direction it becomes very difficult to not lose interest very quickly. There can be many moments of long slow exposition followed by a blur of activity making it difficult to build drama and tension, or indeed character arcs.
One also has to take into consideration the consternation surrounding this film. Its something Id call JFK syndrome. In writing the screenplay to make a feature film based on real life, certain elements (although we know not what) might need to be added or subtracted in order to get to the point a lot faster. Most fact based films do this, none more so then Oliver Stones JFK and specifically the character of Donald Sutherland, someone who was later revealed to be a complete fabrication who actually never existed.
This film is based on McGartlands auto-biography, so its easy to assume that what we are viewing is fact, but after the films release, McGartland released a statement to many movie magazines, denouncing it and declaring that he had no involvement in its release, pointing to its disclaimers at the start and end of the film. That he wants to distance himself is understandable considering that his life was, and still is in danger. Regardless it is only fair to remember that this is a version of events rather than a definitive look of the life of a man caught literally between a rock and a very hard place.
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