Published January 1, 1998
The Boxer by Jim Sheridan deserves some praise for being one of the very few among the spate of recent movies about “the Troubles” in Northern Ireland (including Sheridan’s own) that actually tries to depict the I.R.A. as it is and not with the romantic patina of Michael Collins or, most recently, The Jackal. But it is still not very real. The dialogue between the old capo who is trying to negotiate for peace, Joe Hamill (Brian Cox), and the embittered lieutenant, Harry (Gerard McSorley) who defies him at every turn and deliberately sabotages all his efforts smacks more of American psychobabble than anything remotely recognizable as the kind of thing that one IRA man would say to another, especially a defiant subordinate. There is also no attempt to understand the British presence in the province. The film, like the hard men of the I.R.A., makes no distinction between the British government and the hard men of the Loyalist right. The British are just more refined in their cruelty and taste for violence.
For look what happens when Daniel Day-Lewis as the eponymous boxer, Danny-Boy Flynn, goes off to fight in England in order to escape from threats against his life and the dangerous pull of his old girlfriend, Maggie (Emily Watson)—now married to an I.R.A. hero jailed by the British and so untouchable. The fight we witness is a bizarre spectacle involving an apparently regulation boxing ring, complete with referee, set up in a posh dining room where rich people in evening dress sit at expensively-laid tables and expect, to all appearances, one of the fighters to kill the other. When Danny-Boy has his man at his mercy and then refuses to bludgeon him senseless and very likely kill him, the disgusted impresario says, “You’ll never fight in this country again.”
Those damned Brits!
But the real problem with this film is less its lapses in verisimilitude, which we could possibly live with under other circumstances, than the fact that there is far too much going on. The whole history of the Troubles is at issue; the whole of the peace process of the mid-1990s is too. Then you have a good old-fashioned tale about ghetto kids learning discipline and self-respect from boxing, and the paradoxical role that pugilism can play in bringing together two warring communities. There’s also an old rummy, Ike Weir (Ken Stott) in the Burgess Meredith role who pulls himself together, briefly, when Danny comes home from prison and needs his fighting career managed again. And on top of all this there is as the primary text of the movie the story of Maggie and Danny, who still love each other. Will they be able to get together and find true happiness in spite of the troubles, and the threats of the I.R.A., and Maggie’s husband in prison, and her son, who wants his father, and her father, who’s trying to negotiate peace, and a thousand other things?
The film’s answer is ambiguous but hopeful. Hopeful about Maggie and Danny and hopeful about the “peace process.” The die-hards are symbolically disposed of with the convenient execution of one of their number. But at this point those old nagging questions of plausibility start to come up again. Maggie still has a husband, he is still in prison, and not only her family but the entire culture in which they live must be opposed to her infidelity. Peace or no peace, Maggie is as much a prisoner as ever, as she tells her father, of Irish politics. Of his politics. Sheridan could show the couple running off to Britain or America together, but that would be a cop out. Yet to suggest that they have a future together in Ireland (no doubt the focus groups demanded it) is no less a cop out.