Unlike most movie heroes, Danny Flynn does not drive the action, but rather tries to achieve a balance. In fact, many of the lesser characters seem to have more power over the movie’s events and outcome than Danny, who nevertheless is the perfect central character for the movie.
Danny (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a boxer, just released from prison after serving 14 years for unspecified crimes committed on behalf of the Irish Republican Army.
He comes home to a Belfast neighborhood divided between the militant wing of the IRA, represented by the angry and violent Harry (Gerard McSorley) and the political wing of the IRA, represented by the sober and earnest Joe (played with subtle depth by Brian Cox)
Danny’s unique position in the middle comes not from being a great negotiator but from becoming a symbol. As a fighter, Irish Catholic, and former political prisoner, he is the great white hope of the IRA’s more belligerent faction. As a nonsectarian and as rejuvenator of the community gym he is the symbol of peace and hope to those fed up with Northern Ireland’s 28 years of conflict.
Danny doesn’t want to be a symbol. He wants to box, rekindle an old romance, and forget his incarceration. But like it or not, he is a symbol, and acting on even these meager desires carries meaning and weight for his community.
Approaching his old flame Maggie (Emily Watson) is taken as a sign of disrespect to the IRA, since her husband is currently in jail for IRA activities. On the other hand, inviting both Catholics and Protestants to his boxing match is taken as a sign that the greater community, perhaps all of Ireland, is ready for peace.
Somewhere amidst all the interpreted meanings are the simple desires of a man trying to start over.
Day-Lewis has already proven he’s a good actor, and his portrayal of caught-in-the-middle Danny lives up to his reputation. Watson, fresh off of Breaking the Waves gives a great performance as Maggie, whose proximity to Danny puts her own life uncomfortably in the spotlight of public scrutiny.
Also turning in a grand performance is producer, writer, and director Sheridan. With only one notable exception (a boring scene in a café where Day-Lewis and Watson lost their intensity), each scene keeps the film moving, adding not just to the string of the plot but to the depth of the characters and the complexity of their relationships.
The details of the filmmaking reveal a writer/director who really has a coherent grasp of the big picture. For example, when Danny boxes his English opponent, they have the same color hair, the same color trunks, and the same complexion. Once the match gets started, it’s hard to see what’s so different about “England” and “Ireland.” One wonders why these two brothers are fighting.
Later, in Danny’s self-imposed exile to London, he boxes a bald black man in maroon trunks. Though they look more like opponents, this opponent is from Nigeria and neither man (nor the audience of condescending London millionaires) really has anything at stake. Sheridan makes the visually ironic point that fighting your brother actually makes more sense than fighting a total stranger.
Ultimately, that point is raised again in the political conclusion to the movie.
The cinematography was clever. I won’t say it was good, but there was the occasional shot that sparked my interest, like the opening shot of Danny in the prison yard, dwarfed by the bars of the gate, or the shot early on of a large ship passing behind Danny as he walks toward home. The fact that these shots stood out tells me that the cinematography was probably uneven, but it was interesting.
Finally, the soundtrack was worth mentioning. Gavin Friday has an acid jazz groove that at first seems too un-Irish to fit the film. But once the sad echoing church bells begin to punctuate the music, it seems to fit right in with the gray mood and look of the movie. The fact that the music sounds modern eventually convinces us that it’s time for a new look at the three-decade old hostilities in Northern Ireland.
The Boxer is a complex web of a movie, and at first it seems odd that the main character should be someone so close to the center. But the center is the perfect place from which to explore the ironies and similarities of the left and the right.