Weary of the Fight
Stunning performances in "The Boxer" highlight love and promise in Northern Ireland's grim war.
By Mary Dickson
JANUARY 26, 1998: The Boxer, a brooding film about a man and a woman who want nothing more than to live normal lives amidst the violence of Northern Ireland, is a powerful statement against violence on any front.
Directed by Jim Sheridan and starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Emily Watson, it can't help but be a winner. It's the kind of film, though, that even with a happy ending is depressing because madness will never end.
Day-Lewis, whose performance grips you from start to finish, spent three years training to play middleweight prize fighter Danny Flynn, the "best fighter in Ulster who destroyed his life with the IRA."
Danny has been imprisoned 14 years for his involvement with the IRA, and as the film opens, he is being released. He's a changed and sobered man. All those years in prison have turned his heart against the pointless violence.
Wanting nothing more to do with the IRA, he returns to his old neighborhood to try for a boxing comeback and to train young boys. With his old trainer, Ike Weir (Ken Stott), he plans to reopen the Holy Family Boxing Club.
Their gym will be non-sectarian, meaning that Protestant and Catholic alike are welcome to come and box. The gymnasium becomes a statement, a means of mending bridges and bringing people together in a simple recreational pastime. They don't want differences to matter, they just want the semblance of normalcy.
Sheridan turns The Boxer into a tender love story as well. Emily Watson, who was nominated for her stunning performance in last year's Breaking the Waves, is equally impassioned as the weary Maggie, the woman Danny has loved for years.
It's an impossible situation, however. Not only is Maggie married to Danny's best friend, an IRA POW she no longer loves, but she is the daughter of a major IRA operative. Her relationship with a man who is viewed to be in open defiance of the IRA won't be tolerated.
Day-Lewis and Watson are two incredibly intense, though nuanced, actors, so it is not surprising that the chemistry between them smolders with restrained intensity. Their barely sublimated yearning for each other is very effectively portrayed.
Sheridan's story is slow to develop and initially a bit confusing, but it builds its own quiet power in early scenes, which carefully set the stage for the collapse that follows against a backdrop of the fragile negotiations between the IRA and the police. Maggie's father is getting close to a settlement, but the volatile and fanatical Harry is too impatient. To him, negotiation is nothing more than a sign of going soft. He's a single-minded zealot who sees continued violence as the only way to drive home a point. His volatility creates an tension that underscores this film, making you constantly aware that the bloody battleground is a never-ending possibility.
But it is not to last long. When the IRA sets a car bomb to kill a policeman who has donated uniforms to the gym, pandemonium erupts, all the old tensions explode, and the delicate strings of reconciliation unravel with alarming speed. Soon, the gym itself has gone up in flames. Just when a truce seems at hand, a mad act brings it all to an end. The cycle has started all over.
Danny remains determined to keep his gym, however. He'll build again. And he refuses to turn his love for Maggie into just another "dirty secret." They've done nothing wrong, although she's been warned to end it or see Danny suffer the consequences. A POW's wife is akin to a saint in the IRA's book, and disloyalty is tantamount to the worst conceivable kind of harlotry.
"I am the prisoner here of your politics," Maggie cries to her father, who can't help but respond to his daughter's plight. But it's not just Maggie who is a prisoner of their politics, as Sheridan so cleverly shows. They are all prisoners here.
When I was in Ireland last summer, a Dublin cab driver complained that the IRA was just "a bunch of thugs and criminals." And in The Boxer, they certainly come off as nothing more than organized criminals. Certainly the character of Harry has become so consumed by his cause that any means justifies his end. He's so absorbed in one idea that he's destroying the very community he proclaims to love. Ike screams at him in utter frustration and contempt: "Your only pleasure is in hurting people. You killed this district, Harry, the one thing you loved."
Everyone can plainly see Ike speaks the truth. Violence never solves age-old disputes, it simply keeps the circle going whether in Bosnia, Jerusalem or Belfast.
When Danny is in a London boxing ring, pounding away on an indefatigable African challenger, he realizes that the judges will let this fighting go on, though it should have been called. They want to see the bloody finish. Danny realizes what that bloody finish will mean. He's had enough of the violence. As he did on that day he left the prison, Danny walks away. "It's enough," he says. "The fight is over." That senseless fight is a compelling metaphor for the senselessness that is ripping his country and his neighborhood apart.
That scene is the very point of Sheridan's powerful film. The madness will only end when the people grow so weary of the fighting that, like Danny, they walk away, craving only to get on with their lives, their loves, their simple passions the very things that make them human.
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