Sometimes a film based on a book based on the life of an actual person can be a better piece of entertainment than it is a history lesson. Director Kari Skogland (The Stone Angel, Chicks With Sticks) readily admits that she has changed events and characters in her story. Which is fine. We then know not to rely on the facts, but rather try to understand the feelings/messages she is trying to convey.
Twenty-two-year-old Martin McGartland (Jim Sturgess – 21, Across the Universe) is a young Catholic man living in Belfast during the time of the so-called Troubles. He soon finds himself on both sides of the conflict at once.
As a Catholic man living in West Belfast during the 1980s, Martin's employment options are limited. He makes a living selling stolen goods door to door. His means of employment does not bowl over the girl, Lara (Natalie Press – from television's Masterpiece Theatre's Bleak House), he is trying to impress. He needs to earn some real cash.
Though he believes that the British should not be in Ireland he has also seen the atrocities that his side has done. Despite being conflicted he joins the IRA. Martin is unaware that he is being watched by a member of the British Special Branch named Fergus (Ben Kingsley – House of Sand and Fog, Death and the Maiden). Fergus is a handler who wants to bring Martin in to work as an informant for IRA activities. With the violence he has witnessed still emblazoned in his memory and the lure of the money Fergus is offering him strong, Martin agrees to work with Fergus. He becomes the Special Branch's man on the inside of the IRA.
Lara is pregnant and Martin needs to provide for his family and keep them safe. Martin believes in freedom for his country, but is not willing to get it at any price.
Filled with violence that will have you cringing at times it is never gratuitous. The violence is necessary to show the horror of the times that the people of Belfast had to live through for many generations. I do applaud Skogland for not shying away from showing the difficult aspects of the conflict.
Sturgess does a great job showing the inner turmoil that Martin McGartland went through the whole time he worked for the British as an informant. He is a young man who was exploited by both sides with neither being portrayed as heroic. We understand that he feels that he is betraying his mates and his country while continuing because he believes that he is saving lives.
Kari Skogland wisely stays away from the political overtones of the story. Neither side comes off as being right or righteous. The film does not take sides. What it does accomplish is keep the tension of the story throughout. It is a compelling watch from beginning to end. What the film does manage to say of a political nature is that war of any sort and for any reason is futile.
It is a great portrayal of a man who gave everything he had and really got very little in return. He is still on the run even today; the Troubles have never ended for Martin McGartland.