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‘In the Name of the Father’

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
January 14, 1994


Jim Sheridan
Daniel Day-Lewis;
Emma Thompson;
Pete Postlethwaite
language, violence and sexual innuendo

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"In the Name of the Father" makes sluggish work of a Belfast youth's eventual triumph over the British courts that wrongfully convicted him of terrorism. Based on Gerry Conlon's own account of his arrest and subsequent incarceration, the film takes forever to do what "60 Minutes" does with the same meat in a single segment. It does, however, make its case against the suspension of civil rights under any and all circumstances.

Director Jim Sheridan, who wrote the screenplay with fellow Irishman Terry George, clearly has a shillelagh to shake -- if not an ax to grind -- in this cumbersome finger-wagger. Part courtroom drama, part jail-house memoir, part political statement, the story lacks focus and ultimately runs out of dramatic impetus. It also lacks a sympathetic hero.

The truth is Conlon (Daniel Day-Lewis) probably would have wound up in jail eventually anyhow. Not that this excuses the injustice done him and the various members of his family who were also victims of Britain's zealous enforcement of the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Conlon, a petty thief who inadvertently leads British forces to an IRA hideout, is a congenital screw-up who has long aggravated the guerrilla group. They seem ready to make good on their threat to blow off Conlon's kneecaps when Giuseppe, his long-suffering father (Pete Postlethwaite), helps him escape to England.

On the way to London, Conlon runs into a boyhood friend, Paul Hill (John Lynch), who is forced by authorities to make a fraudulent confession to two IRA bombings. This leads to life sentences for both young men as well as two innocent acquaintances. Evidence knowingly suppressed by the system would not come to light until 15 years later when the Conlons' crusading attorney, Gareth Peirce (Emma Thompson), discovers the crucial evidence attached to a note: "Do not show to the defense." And the British legal system, according to the press notes, was shaken to its foundations.

We in the audience ought to be too, but we really haven't been let in on the struggle. True, the hero, who spends much of his sentence in a cell with his father, comes to respect his father's quiet strength and finally agrees to help him fight for freedom. But he is not in charge of his own fate. And we've barely bonded with lawyer Peirce by the time she takes on the system.

Though this quiet crusader seems to be the story's natural focus, Sheridan was interested in an allegorical approach: The conflict between Giuseppe and his rebellious young son mirrors the ongoing tussle between father England and his Irish offspring. He tried something of a similar nature in "The Field," with results that were even more self-importantly maudlin.

Though Thompson comes off as less a crusader than a fussy paper shuffler, Day-Lewis obviously relishes the opportunity to play the rowdy teen, hoping perhaps to exorcise the Edwardian dandy he portrayed in "The Age of Innocence." He and Postlethwaite, perfect here as the patient, loving Da, enjoy a rapport that carries the middle of the film, wherein father and son find something grander than justice in peace.

"In the Name of the Father" is rated R for language, violence and sexual innuendo.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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