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'Boxer' Ends on the Ropes

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 9, 1998


Movie Scene Daniel Day-Lewis and Emily Watson star in "The Boxer." (Universal)

Jim Sheridan
Daniel Day-Lewis;
Emily Watson;
Brian Cox;
Ken Scott;
Gerard McSorley;
Eleanor Methven;
Ciaran Fitzgerald;
Kenneth Cranham
Running Time:
1 hour, 57 minutes
Under 17 restricted

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The political situation in Ireland has become quite a bankable item for moviemaking. The chief manufacturers are filmmakers Jim Sheridan and Terry George who have made "My Left Foot," "In the Name of the Father" and "Some Mother's Son." Their product is The Troobles, and they keep selling it again and again.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. Most artists sing the same song, no matter how often they change the key. But "The Boxer," which Sheridan directed and co-wrote with George, eventually lapses into its own disappointing formula.

Luckily, this problem doesn't occur until late in the movie. There's every reason to enjoy most of "The Boxer," especially the central love story between Danny Flynn (Daniel Day-Lewis), a middleweight, Catholic boxer from Belfast, and his former girlfriend, Maggie (Emily Watson).

When Danny emerges from 14 years in prison for his association with the IRA, he returns to the same bitter world he left. Although the warring factions are on the verge of a very temporary truce, Belfast is still torn asunder by sectarian violence. Flynn's neighborhood is part of the minority Catholic constituency, which wants Northern Ireland to join with the Republic of Ireland. But they're opposed by the Protestants, who favor independence, as well as allegiance to Great Britain.

Something else has remained, the love between Danny and Maggie, who were teenage sweethearts when he first went to prison. Unfortunately, and not surprisingly, she has married someone else, an IRA activist (and Danny's best friend) who is serving time for his political activities.

From this loveless marriage, Maggie has a son, Liam (Ciaran Fitzgerald), a grim little teenager who watches everyone and everything. Her father (Brian Cox) is an IRA leader whose lieutenant (Gerard McSorley) is a ruthlessly dedicated activist who thinks nothing of killing the "enemy."

In a community so committed to fidelity, religion, symbolism and violence, Maggie's role as a political prisoner's wife is sacrosanct. The former lovers can only exchange surreptitious glances, or converse superficially. Everyone's eyes are upon them.

In the meantime, Danny restarts his life. He breaks open his house, whose entrance he bricked over before serving his time. He reestablishes his relationship with fight mentor Ike Weir (Ken Stott), and slowly gets back into shape for some bouts.

But boxing, neutrality and love are volatile pursuits in this kind of place. Ike's "non-sectarian" gymnasium, where Danny trains and fights, becomes a dangerous pawn in the hands of heavy-handed peace promoters; and the passion between Danny and Maggie is impossible to avoid. It's just a matter of time before the former lovers face the collective wrath of some dangerous people.

Where the movie succeeds-and succeeds wonderfully-is when it stays a heartbeat away from politics. For two-thirds of the movie, it's an involving, boxing saga and romance.

Day-Lewis, who starred in Sheridan and George's "In the Name of the Father" and "My Left Foot," trained for three years for this role. His dedication-in his vigorous skip-rope routines, his impressive prowess in the ring and his taciturn, hulking demeanor-is obvious. Watson, who played the beatific wife in "Breaking the Waves," brings an affecting mixture of frailty and strength to her role.

Inevitably, the uneasy truce, and Danny's relationship with Maggie, must become part of an escalation into bitterness and violence. But that's not the problem.

By populating the story with ideology-wielding characters, there's a danger of contrivance. Sheridan and George simplify the political poignancies and schisms with Hollywood-code archetypes-a leader who's driven by a vision of pluralism, an activist who wants to break the peace for the honor of the slain, a boxer who just wants to box, love his woman and for everyone to just get along. Movies need clear heroes and villains, of course, but Ireland's complexities deserve better (or worse). Despite its strengths, romantic staying power and a surprise ending, "The Boxer" has begun to lose the fight as the movie ends.    

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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