CINEMA / Jim Sheridan's rage of innocence

THERE ARE truths the average movie-goer grasps that the average newspaper columnist can miss. In the Name of the Father (15), Jim Sheridan's account of the wrongful imprisonment of the Guildford Four, which has outraged the commentators, deals in such truths: it's emotionally honest, even if factually misleading. What audiences, rightly, respond to is the uneasy relationship between Gerry Conlon (Daniel Day- Lewis) and his dad, Giuseppe (Pete Postlethwaite), coaxed into conciliation by jail, and the numbing horror of incarceration. The film is about a father, a son and the holy ghost of a chance of getting justice when England is in a moral panic.

It's hard to show what it's like to be shackled without showing what it's like to be free, and the film's opening scenes, depicting Gerry rollicking about in Belfast, then London, are the more poignant for our knowing his elation won't last. A 'paddy-thief' (as he puts it) on the Lower Falls Road, he seems on the verge of life, high on the everyday, living with a desperate abandon. He gets mistaken by the British Army for a sniper, and sparks off a Molotov cocktail party in the street. As the tanks move in, he can't resist an insolent dance, a splay-legged jig, and, to add insult to insanity, an abusive rub of the crotch. On the boat to England he whoops with joy.

Day-Lewis astounds again, returning to the anarchy and wit with which he made his name in My Beautiful Laundrette. He's physically wrong for Gerry - too tall, gaunt and Byronic for the scallywag figure who in 1989 emerged from the Old Bailey punching the air - his long floppy hair is more like Jim Morrison's. But he catches Conlon's innocence - in every sense. When he's marched into a police room, arrested in a dawn raid ('Get out of bed, you dirty, murdering bastard'), and has the grey blanket removed from his head, he blinks dopily and gives a sheepish smile to his stony interrogators. You see then the appalling black comedy (if it weren't tragedy) of how Conlon's utter navety might be read as rebellious cockiness.

For Gerry, having his father in prison with him was more a millstone around the neck than a rock to lean on. He had just flown by the nets of country, family and religion, and now he found himself ensnared again. In Pete Postlethwaite's extraordinary performance as Giuseppe, you see the father Gerry wanted to flee, and the one he came to fight in the name of. His ruddy face is lined with a graft the carefree son could never match, and his neat cardigan and fusspot walk betray a caution the boy revolts from. He's the sort of father only able to express love in reproof. But he has a quiet, pacifist dignity - that of a man who doesn't expect much of life.

Postlethwaite's fixed stare of horror and disbelief in court ought to give the English judiciary sleepless nights. So should the film's presentation of the courtroom, an indictment of the whole adversarial system: its phoney rhetoric ('It is a story written in the blood of their victims'), absurd pomp and degrading, seigneurial judgments. It should be said that the IRA members are also presented as villains, ruling Belfast by thuggery, knee-capping and execution. When the real Guildford bomber (a frightening Don Baker) arrives in prison he has an almost deranged menace, immolating a screw who crosses him. The shots of his bombs blasting away the pubs are sickeningly powerful, and the victims' innocence is underlined.

Jim Sheridan is like Gerry Conlon, furious at the injustice, floating above politics. In the Name of the Father isn't a political film, though it has a tribalist feel, particularly in Trevor Jones's eerie, defiant score, and Bono and Gavin Friday's incantatory title song. There's little political context - no sense of a loyalist community - though Sheridan might argue he's writing drama not history. He's chiefly interested in the Conlon men and their relationship: the other members of the Four are hardly sketched (we get to know best John Lynch's brooding, fearful Paul Hill).

Sheridan may have thought that the injustice to the Guildford Four was so flagrant that it gave him scope to fiddle with the subsidiary facts to tease out the drama. I think he was largely right but hugely nave, alienating some of the Four's supporters and giving fuel to their enemies. He's allowed them to muddy the issue by arguing that he meets distortion with distortion - a lie for a lie, a truth for a truth. And some alterations needlessly reduce the credibility of his case. He makes Gerry's alibi an old park tramp instead of a young man in his hostel. The tramp sounds made up - because he is.

Things really fall apart when Emma Thompson enters the scene as the solicitor who helped mount the appeal that won the Four's release. It's not really a part at all, but a deus ex machina, to sleuth out evidence that in real life was freely given by the Director of Public Prosecutions and rant in an appeal court before which as a solicitor she wouldn't have been allowed right of audience. The problem is not that it's unfactual, but undramatic, reducing the subtlety and ingenuity of the film and the legal process to a cheap coup that even The Firm might blush at. Of course, we get the stirring release scene, but we feel cheated at not really knowing how it came about.

For all the Guildford Four's importance, Sheridan may have been wiser writing a straight fiction on the imprisoned father and son theme (the Conlons never, in fact, shared a cell), as in Frank McGuinness's play based on the Beirut hostages, Someone to Watch Over Me. He might then have made a great film instead of a very good and rousing one.

Free Willy (U) is the story of the love between a young boy and a killer whale (Keiko) - but don't worry, it's all above board except for the underwater sequences. I'd love to say I had a whale of a time, but I found it slow and humourless. And I can't see the sluggishly uncharismatic Keiko being flooded with scripts.

Hollywood does what Cardinal Richelieu failed to, and massacres The Three Musketeers (PG). With little Dumas, and no style, comradeship or swagger, it's barely bearable.

Film details: Review, page 74.