Along with the Cold War (which officially ended the year I was born, 1989), one of the defining historical conflicts of the latter half of the 20th century that I have virtually no recollection of is the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland. With the seemingly endless sectarian violence between Protestants and Catholics over whether or not Northern Ireland should remain part of the United Kingdom or become part of Ireland, I can remember reading about it after the violence mostly ended, but I have almost no recollection over any of the events while they lasted. I was nine when the Belfast Agreement was signed in 1998, but that means I was too young to be an American kid and understand what was happening overseas. And, perhaps it’s because this is my first cinematic exposure to the violence that consumed Northern Ireland, I found The Boxer to be a truly fascinating examination of The Troubles as well as a gripping character study of one man who wants out.
Nominally, The Boxer is a sports movie, but it makes every other boxing movie I’ve watched for this blog seem trite in comparison. Whether you’re talking Rocky or the more recent The Fighter, it seems obvious that The Boxer has more to say about violence, politics, and the human condition than most other sports movies could ever hope to achieve (except maybe the terribly underrated, This Sporting Life). If The Boxer charts one pugilist’s course to redemption, it lays out this man’s path in stark and brutally realistic terms in a world where centuries old hate and violence constantly threatens to undermine any positive steps one man can hope to take. Though the romance at the heart of the film doesn’t carry as much weight as the tale of redemption and political strife, even it cements the senseless and tragic back-and-forth of revenge and violence.
After serving fourteen years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, former Irish Republican Army member Danny Flynn (The Age of Innocence‘s Daniel Day-Lewis) is released from prison and wants nothing more to do with the men who let him rot in prison for something he didn’t do. But nothing is ever that simple. As Danny is released from jail, Joe Hammill (Adaptation.‘s Brian Cox) is negotiating a peace treaty with the British government on the grounds that the IRA prisoners of war are released, but Joe’s desire for peace in Northern Ireland isn’t shared by all of his subordinates, particularly the revenge hungry Harry (Gerard McSorley). And to make matters worse, Danny’s old girlfriend Maggie (Synecdoche, New York‘s Emily Watson) is now the wife of an IRA prisoner, and in the minds of the IRA, there’s almost nothing lower than a man who consorts with the wife of a prisoner.
When Danny is released from prison, he meets up with his old boxing trainer, Ike Weir (Ken Stott), whose become a pathetic and homeless alcoholic with nothing to do with his life when Danny wasn’t around to keep him going. Together they pair re-open their old gym, and in direct defiance with the wishes of the most militant members of the IRA, Danny and Ike make the gym non-sectarian, which means both Catholic and Protestant kids can train there. And, if Danny weren’t already hell-bent on pissing off the IRA, he begins to rekindle his friendship and eventually romance with Maggie. As Joe desperately tries to keep the fragile peace that he’s brokered with the Brits, all of the sectarian tensions and violence threaten to erupt again as Danny prepares for a highly publicized fight with a Protestant championship boxer.
This probably isn’t a controversial stance to take but Daniel Day-Lewis is probably the greatest screen actor that’s ever lived. I’ve reviewed a decent number of films with Daniel Day-Lewis in them, and whether it’s The Age of Innocence or A Room with a View or Lincoln or Gangs of New York, I’ve become convinced that there isn’t any type of role that Day-Lewis can’t play. His range as an actor borders on ludicrous. His performance in The Boxer may not be as iconic as There Will Be Blood, but it’s still one hell of a turn, and Day-Lewis finds all of the rage and resentment and, most importantly, world-weariness that is eating away at Danny’s soul and then forces the audience to recognize the insanity of the world Danny finds himself in. There’s a scene later in the film where Danny is boxing a Nigerian boxer, and it’s one of the most remarkable scenes of Day-Lewis’s career.
And, thankfully, Day-Lewis isn’t the only one with a great performance in this film. Emily Watson is a big name in her native United Kingdom, but she should be a huge star everywhere. She may not have the most conventional leading lady looks, but she’s a hell of a performer. And, similarly to Day-Lewis, the character of Maggie helps to emphasize the film’s themes of weariness with the insanity of the Troubles and how the stubborness and obstinacy of those who can’t let grudges go destroys the lives of everyone around them. And Emily Watson captures how the Troubles have eroded what’s left of Maggie’s soul until Danny steps back into her life. Brian Cox, Ken Stott, and Gerard McSorley all also shine in their supporting roles. Ken Stott’s performance as the alcoholic Ike is one of the more heart-wrenchingly realistic portrayals of alcoholism this side of Leaving Las Vegas.
The film has some minor structural problems, but they’re marginal complaints in a film this excellent and thought-provoking. Similar to The Return of the King, there were nearly three or four different moments when I thought this film was about to end, but then it kept on trucking on. Every sequence after these false endings worked and enriched the story, but it certainly made me antsy as the film continued. But, as I said, when a film has this much to say about the nature of violence, hatred, and the senseless cycle of revenge, I’ll forgive it for ignoring basic laws of cinematic story structure. Both as a historical document of the last breaths of the Troubles as well as an intimate portrait of one man trying to recapture his soul, The Boxer is an indisputable triumph of character driven and political storytelling.
If you enjoy Daniel Day-Lewis, there is no excuse for not watching this film. I have seen exactly one film where he played the lead that I did not enjoy (the abysmal musical Nine, and it’s not his fault it was bad. You can’t make a fucking musical adaptation of 8 1/2 and not expect it to be fucking terrible). Daniel Day-Lewis’s insane dedication to craft and character is usually worth the price of admission alone (it’s what made Lincoln a very good if not a great film), and thankfully The Boxer has more than just another superb Daniel Day-Lewis film in its favor. My only word of warning for this film is that if you struggle understand foreign accents, you will have a hard time with the almost indecipherable thick Irish accents that all of the characters employ. And there are no subtitles on the DVD or Netflix versions of this film. Other than that, you owe it to yourself to watch this excellent film.
Final Score: A-