His own man

Taylor reviews 'The Boxer' directed by Jim Sheridan and starring Daniel Day-Lewis and Emily Watson.

Published December 30, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

S T ARRING IN "THE BOXER" as Danny Flynn, an IRA soldier who returns to his Belfast neighborhood after 14 years in prison, Daniel Day-Lewis doesn't have the fiery presence he did in "My Left Foot" and "In the Name of the Father," both films also directed by Jim Sheridan. And still, his performance feels like the work of the most exciting actor in the movies right now. Certain actors become heroes because of the almost physical excitement they stir up. When, at the end of "In the Name of the Father," Day-Lewis' Gerry Conlon strode above the heads of the spectators in the British courtroom where he'd been exonerated and walked out the front door to freedom, he seemed strong enough to carry the entire audience on his back. With actors capable of something that stirring, each new performance becomes an event, especially when, as Day-Lewis has with Sheridan, an actor has been lucky enough to find a director who becomes his collaborator. I think Day-Lewis is at a point where he generates the kind of anticipation that Marlon Brando and Laurence Olivier did.

His work in "The Boxer" is more contained than usual. During his time in prison, Danny Flynn has come to believe that the years he spent with the IRA were a waste, a contribution to the bloodshed that claimed many of his contemporaries and the thing that took him away from his career as a boxer. When he comes out, he's determined to pick up where he left off, refusing to be caught up in the old sectarian grudges. Discovering plastic explosives stored in the gym where he trains, he sneaks them out at night and chucks them in the river. And he takes up wooing the woman he left behind, Maggie (Emily Watson), though the IRA man she wound up marrying when Danny went away is himself in prison, and Danny risks running afoul of the IRA's strict hands-off-prisoner's-wives policy by seeing Maggie.

Day-Lewis portrays Danny with the no-nonsense directness you'd expect of a man beginning his life over at 32. He doesn't employ an extraneous word or gesture, whether he's walking down the street, putting the kettle on for tea or jumping rope (at which Day-Lewis is impressively proficient). Day-Lewis must be one of the most magnetic presences in the movies, and one of the most beautiful men to look at. But we never think, "This is Daniel Day-Lewis, movie star, pretending to be a working-class Irish fighter." When we see him walking the streets of Belfast, he's Danny Flynn. He has the pared down physicality, the carriage of a man who will neither hide nor make a show of himself. In a sense, Day-Lewis' Flynn has already reached the point that Brando's Terry Molloy reaches at the end of "On the Waterfront." He's made the decision to live his life on his own terms, without kowtowing to the men who used to control him, even before the movie begins. His anger surges to the surface when they try to tell him where his loyalties should lie, when they object to a boxing club hosting a night for Protestants and Catholics or tell him to stay away from Maggie.

Because most boxing movies are, in one way or another, about redemption (the boxer is fighting to prove he can go the distance -- with his opponent, himself, life), they invite sentimentality. "The Boxer" is about redemption, most notably the redemption of Ike (Ken Stott), Danny's former trainer, who became a drunk when he saw his brightest hope go to prison. In some ways, this is the most conventional of Sheridan's movies. But it never feels sentimental because of the grittiness of his approach.

"The Boxer" is set against the backdrop of the negotiation of the recent cease-fire in Northern Ireland. For the IRA, the sticking point was the release of the men they consider prisoners of war. Sheridan and co-scenarist Terry George (who made his directing debut last year with the passionate and scrupulous "Some Mother's Son," about the 1981 IRA hunger strike) parallel Danny's attempt to start over with the IRA commanders' grudging participation in the political process. The change suits Maggie's father, Joe (Brian Cox, giving a performance that feels as though he's lived in the character's skin for years), whose weariness tells you he's deeply sick of what he's seen and what he's been party to. And it infuriates Harry (Gerard McSorley), the most unrepentant of his underlings, who considers the IRA's participation in the peace process a betrayal.

The feeling of life in a war zone is so woven into the texture of "The Boxer" that Sheridan doesn't have to make a big deal about the details he shows us: a block of council flats connected by hidden holes in the wall that function as escape routes; a pub with crude portraits of the 10 dead hunger strikers drawn on the wall; the face of a young boy looking at a new bomb site as if he's seen the same thing dozens of times. There's a moving sequence where the boxing club holds its first night of fights for a mixed audience. One by one, Ike introduces the parents of young boxers killed in the troubles, each a former trainee, and as Sheridan shows us the faces of each couple, we seem to have entered an upside-down land where mothers and fathers outlive their children. Later on, when the stirred-up emotions boil over, Sheridan proves himself a master at portraying violence on a large scale. He plunges us right into the chaotic middle of a riot, scarcely giving us time to breathe, and yet there's never a second where what we're seeing isn't absolutely clear. And there's real decency in the way that, no matter who the victim of the violence Sheridan shows, he focuses on the gaping holes left behind.

It's the love story between Danny and Maggie that gives "The Boxer" its center, and Day-Lewis and Watson -- who don't go beyond a passionate kiss -- achieve an erotic yearning that calls up the scenes between Brando and Eva Marie Saint in "On the Waterfront." They make the connection between Danny and Maggie palpable, from the first time the characters run into each other after Danny's release. Standing at opposite sides of the screen, it's all they can do to keep from rushing into each other's arms. Day-Lewis uses his scenes with Watson to suggest all the emotions Danny holds inside.

As a woman whose reawakened sexuality targets her as a betrayer, even to her own son, Watson is very touching. Seeing her here made me realize why I thought she was so amateurish in "Breaking the Waves." Watson, who has the face of a young girl, had obviously been directed to act as shy and coy as possible. Director Lars von Trier was less interested in her as a character than as a conceit, a soldier for Christ and Kraft-Ebing. The poignancy of Maggie is that around Danny (as when she sees him fight and can't quite disguise that it turns her on), she has the bloom of a young girl and yet she can't shake the weariness of someone made to honor allegiances that take no account of her. And yet, there's an underlying toughness to Maggie that suits her perfectly to Danny. It's the quality that keeps Watson from seeming wan, and the one that makes me eager to see her in another role.

"The Boxer" isn't the same thrilling achievement that "My Left Foot" and "In the Name of the Father" were. But it's a solidly crafted film of resolutely adult emotions, and Sheridan must be one of the few consistently political filmmakers who never loses sight of the human focus of his politics. "The Boxer" doesn't soar in the way Sheridan's best films do. But what it does isn't negligible. Like its hero, it puts one foot in front of the other, doggedly, and gets where it means to go.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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