The first time I came to know anything about the Irish Republican Army (or IRA) was in the early 90's. Of course, my introduction was through film, as is often the case, and it just so happened to be two films that were a year apart. In 1992, a spoiled assassination attempt by an off-shoot IRA group resulted in an obsessive vendetta against a CIA analyst in "Patriot Games". That film had a modern day setting, unlike 1993's "In the Name of the Father" which followed the true story of Gerry Conlon, who back in the mid 70's, was wrongfully convicted of IRA terrorist activity while visiting London. Both films depicted the IRA as a radical group of paramilitary, determined to do anything to liberate Ireland from the UK.
In Canadian screenwriter, producer and director, Kari Skogland's film, we're given more than one perspective of the IRA, revealing the thin line that is blurred between revolutionary and terrorist. The story, loosely based on the autobiography of the same name by Martin McGartland tells of his undercover activity with the IRA. It shows the brutality toward 'touts' (or traitors) to their cause as well as the shameful steps the British police took to get a handle on the IRA's activity. By the late 1980's, the long-standing tension between the British and the Irish had culminated in what would be called "The Troubles", located predominately in Northern Ireland. Which is where we find Martin (Jim Sturgess), a young hustler in Belfast, selling women's lingerie door to door. His apolitical stance has distanced him from the IRA, yet their activity is ever present.
After witnessing brutality enacted by the IRA toward one of his friends, Martin reluctantly accepts an offer by the British Special Forces to become an undercover informer. He reports to a man named Fergus (Sir Ben Kingsley), who becomes his handler and in time, father figure. There's no way Martin could have known the type of life-threatening danger he was getting himself into, in fact, it's never quite clear what his motivations are. He soon becomes a rising asset to both the IRA and the British police, despite the risk to his girlfriend (Natalie Press) and their son. Martin continued as an agent, gradually realizing he'd be spending the rest of his life paranoid, on the run and in hiding. It wasn't all for nothing though. The information Martin provides saves the lives of at least fifty men who would have wound up dead if not for his involvement.
Skogland delivers a crisp thriller that will interest anyone craving action and a story without neglecting character. She starts out the film with a thoroughly attention-grabing scene with Martin in the late 90's, leaving you knowing full well that we are about to be his story. Her only weaknesses come when she relies too heavily on similar conventions like montage scenes and adrenalized punk music. It's not awful, it's just that we've seen this approach countless times. Still, she does not romanticize any of the characters and their storyline at any point, thankfully. The best scenes are the ones where she gives us Sir Ben and Sturgess, as we see the reliance each other has on the other over time. It becomes clear that for these two characters, it becomes more of a necessary relationship. Both are estranged from their own father/son relationship and due to where they are in life, are in need of one. She really allows them to take their time and work off each other well. It becomes clear that they need each other since both of their own father/son relationships are either non-existent or estranged.
I can't say I really thought much about the talents of Sturgess before this film. Seeing him in "Across the Universe", he struck me as another up-and-coming pretty boy. I had not seen much of his work since and knew that his performance would really have to sell this small iindependentfilm. Here he shows a strong handle on a wide range of emotion while also giving a very physical performance, running all over town and getting beaten to a pulp. What really interested me about the film was the subject matter, and of course, Kingsley but Sturgess' work is excellent here. Meeting him for a Q&A after the screening, he came across very engaging and involved in his craft. I look forward to going back and seeing his past films as well as his future work. I'm hoping Kingsley's involvement in this film brings more attention to it.
- Man on the Run was a working title for the film. Casting was completed in November 2007.
- The film premiered on 4 September 2008 at the Toronto International Film Festival in Canada.
- Since then it has screened at the 2009 Kingston Canadian Film Festival. The UK premiere was held on the 4th of April 2009 in Belfast, where the film was shot. Jim Sturgess was unable to attend, as was Sir Ben Kingsley, who recorded a video message for the audience to thank them for attending.
- Phoenix23, the Belfast band who recorded three tracks for the soundtrack; "Hit the Ground Running", "Its a Blast" and "Hurricane" were in attendance. The film went on general release in the UK on 10 April 2009.
- McGartland, an Irish Catholic, was arrested by the Royal Ulster Constabulary police in 1989 at age 16 for petty crime. After that arrest, he agreed to infiltrate the IRA, and pass information on their activities under the codename Agent Carol to the RUC Special Branch which dealt with counter terrorism activities.
- For his information he was later described as "one of the RUC's most important agents inside the IRA's Belfast Brigade during the early Nineties."
- In 1991 his cover was blown, and he was kidnapped by the IRA to be interrogated then killed.
- He escaped by leaping from an upstairs window and fled to England, receiving money to set up a new life in North East England.
- His autobiography was a best seller, and he released a follow up about his time on the run.
- In 1997 he came to press attention after Northumbria Police revealed his location when they attempted to prosecute him for holding false identities, which he claimed he required to evade discovery by the IRA, which was upheld in court. Also in 1997 The BBC made a short documentary on him.
- In 1999, he survived being shot six times in an attack on his home in Whitley Bay.
- He stated the IRA had been responsible, which they denied. Months after the shooting it emerged that the RUC had linked the gun used to shoot McGartland to the murder of a drugs dealer in Northern Ireland by the IRA.
- He alleged the British Government was covering up the IRA's involvement to preserve the ceasefire declared by them in 1997. He successfully sued several media outlets for falsely claiming at the time that the attempt on his life had come about due to his links to a North East drugs gang.
- Kingsley's role is an amalgam of several, very sketchily delineated policemen.
- McGartland claims the film distorts the facts, and it has teetered on the verge of being pulled from cinemas in the wake of the renewed sectarian violence in Northern Ireland this year.
- As of the time of the release of the film, he was still in hiding yet Strogland communicated with him via telephone during filming.
NOTE: During the Q&A, I asked Sturgess if Ben Whishaw was ever involved in the movie. He uncomfortably said that before he came on, there was "a Ben" that had spent time in Belfast researching the role. Interesting.