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'In the Name of the Father'

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 14, 1994


Jim Sheridan
Daniel Day-Lewis;
Emma Thompson;
Pete Postlethwaite
Under 17 restricted

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"In the Name of the Father" is as good a compromise of fact and fiction as you could hope for -- and still call it a movie. Based on Gerry Conlon's true account of his 15-year imprisonment in England for terrorism, the Irish production starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Emma Thompson and Pete Postlethwaite takes some dramatic license with history.

But if minor facts have been streamlined or bent into formulaic shape for entertainment purposes, one unassailable truth remains paramount: Conlon was wrongfully jailed.

During a spate of IRA-triggered bombings in the early 1970s, the beleaguered British government created the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which facilitated the arrest of any individual on the flimsiest of suspicions. When explosions rocked two pubs in Guildford, England, Conlon and three others (soon to be known as the Guildford Four) were arrested.

According to Conlon, whose assertions were vindicated in 1989 when his conviction was overturned, he was tortured and forced to sign a confession. It also came to light that police withheld evidence that would have freed Conlon: a witness who claimed to be with Conlon at the time of the bombings and a confession to the bombings by an IRA operative.

The movie, which shows all of these things, starts in 1970s Belfast where a young Day-Lewis spends his youth running from British forces and Catholic IRA terrorists, both fighting for control of Northern Ireland's predominantly Protestant populace. In one harrowing scene, Day-Lewis is cornered by IRA gangsters who intend to kneecap him for petty thievery.

But Day-Lewis is saved by the emotional intervention of his father (Postlethwaite), who barters freedom for his son: Day-Lewis can walk away if he leaves the country. He boards a ship for England, where an even worse fate awaits him.

The movie shows Day-Lewis's penniless, house-squatting days in London, a rose-tinted time of free love and afghan coats. But his drifting life is soon to be shattered by the distant explosions he hears one day. Arrested inexplicably by the police, he finds himself the center of a national thirst for vengeance.

When Postlethwaite hears of his son's detention, he comes to London only to be arrested himself for conspiracy. Convicted (with other suspects) in a kangaroo-court trial, father and son are sent to prison, where they share a cell and weather the political contempt of English prisoners. It's going to be a long and dangerous odyssey before they meet attorney Thompson, their only chance for a second trial. Director Jim ("My Left Foot") Sheridan, who collaborated on the screenplay with Terry George, invented the cell-sharing between father and son. He also condenses two real-life trials (of the Guildford Four and another group known as the Maguire Seven) into one and boils down two IRA bombing culprits into a slick, fictional composite played by Don Baker. But he's accurate in most other places.

In the midst of this detailed miscarriage of justice, Day-Lewis is wonderfully understated and touchingly believable as Conlon. Thompson, in a largely accurate rendition of lawyer Gareth Peirce, does a great deal with a supporting role that's almost a deus ex machina. But Postlethwaite (who appeared with Day-Lewis in "The Last of the Mohicans" and gave a stunning performance in the British movie "Distant Voices, Still Lives") is the best of all. As Day-Lewis's savior, and as a man too old, proud and uncompromising to accept the cell-bound horrors of undeserved shame, he gives credence to something larger than wrongful imprisonment: In his anguished face, you can see the whole "troubles" of Ireland.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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