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Films, books alike carry Ireland's load

By Kevin Cullen
Globe Staff / March 3, 2012
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Never have more trees died for an island that holds fewer people than Massachusetts. But it's not just books about Ireland. Is there a smaller country that has had more films made about it and its people?

This should come as no surprise. The Irish certainly talk more than any other tribe. And if there is a group more theatrical, I have yet to meet them. For the Irish, life is performance art.

If you're interested in Irish themed films, the Irish in Film, an Annotated Database is as good as it gets: irishfilm.net. And for current Irish film, there's no better site for contemporary Irish film than that of the Boston-based Irish Film Festival, which this year runs from March 22 -25 at the Somerville Theater in Somerville and the Brattle Theater in Cambridge, www.irishfilmfestival.com.

Like books about Ireland and the Irish, the films run the gamut, from the good to the bad to the so-bad-it's-good ("The Quiet Man" comes to mind; "Darby O'Gill and the Little People" does not).

Steve McQueen's meditation on the 1981 republican hunger strikes, "Hunger," and Michael Fassbender's haunting portrayal of Bobby Sands makes this the best film done on the subject. Fassbender starved himself like Sands, and it is painful to watch his emaciated body waste away.

"Leap Year," 2010's equivalent of "Darby O'Gill and the Little People," proves that Hollywood has not completely got over its belief that the Irish are a people to be patronized. God knows who Amy Adams pissed off to get cast in this. The script makes "P.S. I Love You" read like Joyce. As the estimable Donald Clarke said in The Irish Times, "Hollywood is incapable of seeing the Irish as anything but IRA men or twinkly rural imbeciles."

Clarke's admonition is a caveat to live by. If you're looking for good films about the Irish, don't look to Hollywood. And perhaps the best film made about Ireland in recent years, capturing it in all its post-Celtic Tiger contradictions, is a short by David O'Hara called "Yu Ming Is Ainm Dom," or in the English, "My Name is Yu Ming." It's about a bored Chinese shopkeeper who randomly puts his finger on a twirling desktop Globe and decides to move to Dublin when his finger lands on Ireland. His research shows that Ireland's native language is Gaelic, so he spends six months learning the language. But when he arrives in Dublin, he can't find any Irish who speak Irish. Frank Kelly, who played the boozily insane priest Father Jack on the classic TV sitcom "Father Ted," is the kindly Irish-speaker who sets Yu Ming straight over a pint of the black stuff. The film packs in 13 minutes the humor and the sadness of what is increasingly an Ireland distancing itself from a lot that is good about it.

Plug "Yu Ming" into your search engine and you'll find a 13-minute gem about modern Ireland.

It is conventional to make fun of John Ford's "The Quiet Man," made in 1952, because it plays on every stereotype associated with the Irish. From watching the movie, you would conclude that in Ireland a) no one works, b) everyone drinks, and c) after getting loaded, everybody fights.

But it is hard to resist the charms of Barry Fitzgerald as Michaleen, John Wayne as Sean Thornton, the American boxer who comes home to Ireland to get away from killing a man in the ring, and Maureen O'Hara as Mary Kate Danaher, the fiery redhead who steals Sean's heart.

Best line in the movie: when Victor McLaglen, as Mary Kate's big mouth brother, Squire "Red" Will Danaher, barks at her, "Ah, shut yer gob!" Like David Lean's 1970 "Ryan's Daughter," the majestic shots of Ireland rural, rustic beauty seems as if they were made by the Irish tourist board. Those two films probably did more to inform the world about Ireland's natural beauty than anything else. A better movie would be about Robert Mitchum's antics around Dingle when they filmed "Ryan's Daughter." Dingle folk say there wasn't a pub or a woman that didn't receive Mitchum's undivided attention.

Seventeen years before Ford made "The Quiet Man," Ford and McLaglen had teamed up to make "The Informer," based on Liam O'Flaherty's classic novel. McLaglen played Gypo Nolan, the Judas of Irish nationalism, who traded his friend Frankie McPhillip to the Black and Tans for a bounty during the Irish war for independence. It plumbs the worse thing you can be in the Irish psyche, worse than a murderer: a tout.

Ford got the Irish. But then, his real name was Sean O'Feeney.

The Troubles, as the Irish in their penchant for understatement call their civil wars, have been fodder for probably too many movies. But some of the best films with Irish themes have drawn on the Troubles, both in their early incarnation, during the fight for independence and the Irish Civil War of 1922-23, and the modern version, mainly in Northern Ireland, from 1969 until only recently.

Little appreciated is "Odd Man Out," from 1947, which starred James Mason, and is a great contemplation on that fine line between being a freedom fighter and a criminal. Neil Jordan's "Michael Collins," a labor of love which Jordan was able to make only because big stars Liam Neeson and Julia Roberts did it for peanuts, pays homage to the man who fought the British Empire to a standoff. Collins knew he signed his own death warrant when he accepted a treaty in 1921 that required the rebels to take an oath to the queen, and accept six of Ireland's 32 counties remaining part of the United Kingdom.

Jordan's "The Crying Game" is, in my opinion, the best film ever made about the modern Troubles, and not because of the shock ending. Better than others because it bogs down so little in the history of Europe's longest-running guerrilla war, instead using it as an allegory, a metaphor for any conflict in which otherwise thoughtful human beings summarily judge or kill others. "Cal," Pat O'Connor's 1984 film, in which a young John Lynch plays the reluctant getaway driver for an IRA hit team that kills a police officer and later falls in love with the murdered cop's widow, played by Helen Mirren, may be the second best. Mirren turns up later in "Some Mother's Son," Terry George's 1996 film about the 1981 republican hunger strikes.

In 1990, Ken Loach made "Hidden Agenda," set in the modern Troubles, whose agenda about blaming Margaret Thatcher for everything wasn't hidden enough. Last year, Loach delivered a contemplation on the early Troubles, "The Wind that Shakes the Barley," which was magnificent where "Hidden Agenda" was more plodding. It is as good as anything made about the Irish fight for independence and the resulting civil war.

There should be a separate category for Daniel Day-Lewis, who has Irish blood in him, and lives in County Wicklow. In "In the Name of the Father," he plays Gerry Conlon, a ne'er do well from Belfast who was framed, along with his father, for a series of IRA pub bombings in England. In "The Boxer," he plays a fictional character, who breaks the biggest taboo in the IRA hotbed of West Belfast: falling in love with the wife of an imprisoned IRA man. In both films, Day-Lewis is understated and totally believable, with a pitch perfect Belfast accent. John Lynch, who played the title role in "Cal," gives a terrific performance in "In the Name of the Father" as Paul Hill, Conlon's aimless pal from Belfast, who is likewise framed. Hill did considerably better when he and the rest of the so-called Guildford Four were freed from prison, marrying Bobby Kennedy's daughter Courtney.

But, for all his good work in those modern Troubles films, Day-Lewis' bravura performance was as the disabled artist and writer Christy Brown in "My Left Foot." It is simply brilliant, and the evocation of 1960s working-class Dublin is spot on.

As good as Day-Lewis' accents are, there are some actors who simply didn't get it. Tom Cruise in "Far and Away" is far and away the worst. He is laugh out loud funny as an Irish immigrant come to America. Mission impossible, indeed. Richard Gere wasn't much better in "The Jackal." And Chris O'Donnell's performance in "Circle of Friends" suggests he spent more time studying at BC and not whiling the nights away in Boston's myiad Irish pubs, listening to the accents.

Like pubs, and a pour of Guinness, some movies are better than others. "Patriot Games," based on one of Tom Clancy's over the top novels, was predictably over the top. Harrison Ford is the hero, and Sean Bean plays the stereotypical mad IRA man. In "A Quiet Day in Belfast," Margot Kidder plays a Belfast woman who is tarred and feathered, a fate better reserved for the writer and director. And topping the list is "Darby O'Gill and the Little People," whose cast inexplicably includes Sean Connery. As a Scot, Connery is a Celt. It's about leprechauns, those simian creatures that used to pop up in Punch so the Brits could feel superior. It is a Disney film and pretty dumb. Second only, maybe, to "Leprechaun," a 1993 horror flick which starred a little known Jennifer Aniston. Who needs Friends when you can make bad movies?

Irish gangster movies tend to be much better than the horror genre. In the Irish-American category, "Angels with Dirty Faces," made in 1938 and starring James Cagney, Pat O'Brien and Humphrey Bogart - what a cast! - is a classic. Scorsese's "Gangs of New York" was largely panned, but it's ambitious filmmaking, and Day-Lewis is at it again. John Boorman's 1998 "The General," about the Dublin mobster Martin Cahill, who was murdered by the IRA in 1994, stars the inimitable Brendan Gleeson. Gleeson's recent turn with Dub actor Colin Farrell, in the Anglo-Irish writer Martin McDonagh's "In Bruges," is a delight. McDonagh, whose "Beauty Queen of Lenane" cleaned up on Broadway some years ago, shows he is as equally comfortable in film as he is on stage.

Mythology is a huge part of Irish culture, and there are some films that draw on this. John Sayles' "The Secret of Roan Inish" is beautifully filmed, and "Into the West," which Irishman Gabriel Byrne made when he and Ellen Barkin were married, is marvelous.

Of course, literature is, like Guinness, mother's milk to the Irish, and there is a good selection of literary films. John Huston's last film was "The Dead," based on the short story from Joyce's "Dubliners" collection, and starring the late, great Donal McCann, the finest Irish stage actor of his generation, it is the best Joyce on film. All three of the books from Roddy Doyle's "Barrytown Trilogy" were made into films, and while "The Commitments" was the best known and most commerically successful, I think "The Snapper" and "The Van" are better, more authentic films, capturing working class Dubs in their humor and darkness. "Angela's Ashes" was a better book than movie, but it dutifully recreates the lanes of Limerick that seem just a memory now that Dell is turning out computers in Stab City. Then there are the films drawn from Ireland's great playwrights: "Da," the 1988 movie starring Martin Sheen, based on Hugh Leonard's enormously popular play; "The Field," from the great John B. Keane's play, lets the Limerick man Richard Harris do something meaningful between "Camelot" and the Harry Potter movies; while Brian Friel's "Dancing at Lughnasa" should have been as good as Friel wrote it.

I'm told 2010 was a good year for Irish film. I wouldn't know, because I didn't see any as I was too busy trying to figure out "Avatar." But according to my pal Dawn Morrissey, co-director of the Boston Irish Film Festival, these films from 2010 are worth checking out:

"The Secret of Kells," the Oscar-nominated animated feature about the boy behind the famous Book of Kells; "The Yellow Bittern: The Life and Times of Liam Clancy," a documentary about one of the members of The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem that shows the excesses of rock and roll seeped into the presumably more grounded world of folk; "Route Irish," yet another from the great Ken Loach, set in Liverpool, about private contractors fighting in Iraq; "Perrier's Bounty," Brendan Gleeson and Cillian Murphy in a gangster movie about revenge.

Morrissey recommends "The Guard," with Gleeson as a quirky bogman cop in the wilds of Connemara, working with Don Cheadle’s rather more orthodox FBI agent, and "Parked," with Colm Meaney, about a proud man living in his car being inspired to be a better person by a drug addict.

She also gives a big thumbs up to "The Pipe," a documentary about how the small community of Rossport takes on Shell Oil, trying to block an oil pipeline from spoiling one of the most beautiful parts of Ireland's west coast.

Finally, a hidden gem: "A Man of No Importance." Made in 1995, it's a lovely set piece about a small community theater's effort to stage the play of Oscar Wilde, the Irish dandy whose homosexuality and scandalous liasons left much of mainstream Ireland in the 1950s and 1960s feeling ambivalent about him, at best. Albert Finney, Brenda Fricker and Michael Gambon head a stellar cast.

Globe columnist Kevin Cullen was the Globe's Dublin bureau chief in 1997-1998 and has covered Ireland for the Globe for 25 years. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com.

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'Hunger'

Kevin Cullen's flick picks

The Boston Globe columnist counts "Hunger" (left) among his favorites.

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