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10 April 2009

The Colour of Truth is Grey

Belfast, 1988. Not so much the Emerald Isle as the Grey City. There is a lot of grey in Kari Sklogland's new film Fifty Dead Men Walking, much of it in the minds--and the morals--of the main characters. The film is based on the autobiography of Martin McGartland, a former salesman of stolen goods who was recruited by Ben Kingsley, of the British police, as a "tout," spying on the IRA. From the start, McGartland is unwilling to be a "tout" and to inform on his friends and his community, especially as he has a young family. But Kingsley's character Fergus plays a good father figure and McGartland eventually agrees and moves up through the ranks of the IRA, always passing on relevant information to Fergus and saving lives in the process, until he has to skip the country and go into hiding, where he remains now, changing his name every few months.

It's not that simple, of course. The good thing about the BFI is that you never know who will drop by for screenings (going to see Blade Runner might mean you get Ridley Scott turning up to chat) and the director of Fifty Dead Men came along for a Q&A after the screening last night. She explained that her film was based only loosely on McGartland's autobiography, which wasn't endorsed by him or even really approved by him, and that the main reason for this was because she wanted to paint as balanced a picture as possible whereas the autobiography, of course, portrays McGartland's own politics, including his understandably passionate hatred of the IRA. And she does a good job to portray the dilemmas the characters--especially McGartland--must go through. Early on, the Brits offer McGartland money in exchange for spying on his mates and he is almost offended by this. The social cost of becoming a tout would be far higher than the Brits would be willing to offer. Sklogland also invests a lot in the love story between McGartland and his girlfriend who later becomes the mother of his children. The fact that he adores his family make the choices he must make even more difficult.

Belfast in 1988, as portrayed in Fifty Dead Men, could easily double for any dystopian near present or near future (it reminded me a lot of Children of Men). It is dark and grey but with an edgy, punk-folk soundtrack and scenes where the grey is bathed in sickly shades of lurid green and yellow. Embarrassingly, perhaps, I don't know how accurate it is. My knowledge of the Northern Island conflicts--or, indeed, anything about Ireland--is close to zero. Maybe I was too young during the heyday but even now, I really know very little about the issues. 

When I saw the trailer for this film last week with the guy from 21 putting on an Irish accent and not a Yank one this time (apparently, during the filming, Jim Sturgess started using an Irish accent on arrival in Northern Ireland and didn't stop until they left the country at the end of filming; accordingly, his accent is pretty decent) and running away from some armed men who could be the good guys, the bad guys, the British police or the IRA, I initially thought it would be yet another political drama to be avoided. It soon became clear there was more to the film than this and I'm glad I went to see it.

The woman sitting next to me wasn't quite so happy. She would shudder violently and let out a small cry every time one of the characters was being tortured (which happened a few times during the film). I was convinced that during the Q&A she would ask the director why she felt that the graphic violence was necessary but she didn't. In fact, no one really had any questions at all at first. Some old man asked whether Sklogland wrote one of the lines (which went something like, "we're fighting for the law, against the law, in the name of the law") but actually she got that from someone she was speaking to when doing her Northern Irish research. Later on, some people seemed to be getting quite heated when asking their questions. 

One woman asked what the (ex-) IRA Sklogland spoke with thought of McGartland. When the director asked what the woman went, the latter seemed to be on the defensive (she had a Belfast accent) but eventually asked whether Sklogland's making of the film and her "research" could possibly have endangered McGartland's life. Of course, the director just said that that was always their number one concern and that they always took any measures necessary to ensure McGartland came to no harm as a result of the film. He did, of course, write his autobiography 10 years ago, which led to the IRA busting his latest hiding place and shooting him, but as Sklogland pointed out, things are different now.

The accents were generally quite good throughout. Ben Kingsley's northern Fergus was, of course, great, and only Rose McGowan, who played a feisty female IRA officer, tended to flit between American and Irish. The director explained that the key motivation in the film was for authenticity and so she was happy when some of the locals, watching the filming, added comments on the accents or word use of the actors. When asked about the international release of the film, Skogland noted that some American releases of the film would probably end up with subtitles, much to her consternation. She compared the measures they took to ensure all scenes were understandable by an international audience with an episode of ER: two doctors chatting away with their medical babble; you don't know what the words they use mean but you do know that one scenario is good and one is bad and that is enough.

Oh, and I was very glad to have recognised two characters from The Tudors in Fifty Dead Men; Nick Dunning (who played Anne Boleyn's father) played a doctor and Anthony Brophy (Chapuys, the Spanish ambassador) was Jonathan. The latter was particularly hard to spot because in The Tudors he has to speak with a thick Spanish accent!

Overall, Fifty Dead Men was a thought-provoking thriller. Sturgess did well to portray McGartland sympathetically but then Ben Kingsley's character was also very likable, despite the difficulty of working out who is on which side and who--if anyone--is right. I'll certainly try to get hold of some of the soundtrack, most of which was performed by a random Belfast band, Phoenix 23, who happened to be fronted by the boyfriend of one of the editors of the film.


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