Classic films with the Troubles in mind

Films about atrocities in Northern Ireland are out on DVD. Geoffrey Macnab assesses their impact and legacy

Feature films set during the Troubles in Northern Ireland constitute a mini-genre in their own right. Over the last three decades, there have been docudramas, thrillers, gangster movies and even love stories made against the backcloth of the conflict. They have been made from many different perspectives and with many different intentions. Some extraordinarily distinguished work has been done – work that helped to bring events in Northern Ireland into far sharper focus for British and international audiences while also bearing testimony to what the people of Northern Ireland were suffering.

"The predominant feeling you had if you were my age was that you [as a Brit] knew about the conflict – it was a dark shadow, but it didn't really impact you," the 52-year-old British film-maker Paul Greengrass (director of Bloody Sunday and screenwriter of Omagh) recalls of the indifference that many of his generation in the UK felt toward events across the water.

"It only impacted when there was a bomb in London and Birmingham. I remember as a 22-year-old World In Action guy going to Northern Ireland and being stunned by it – the reality of it, the intensity of it, the volatility of it, the sense of vibrancy. It captured my imagination... in feature films, it has fuelled a lot of wonderful work. They have all been what I would call torches shone into a dark room. It was very, very hard to bring meaningful images of that conflict to people."

What is striking, too, is the range of that work. In the 1980s, film-makers like Neil Jordan with Angel (1982) and Pat O'Connor with Cal (1984) responded to the conflict by making lyrical, introspective pieces about characters caught up unwittingly in the violence.

Contrast the soulful melancholy of Cal or Angel with the outspoken polemics of Ken Loach's thriller Hidden Agenda (1990), made to draw attention to the iniquity of the British "shoot-to-kill" policy in Northern Ireland. Alan Clarke made two extraordinary films set during the conflict. Contact (1985) was about a British platoon in "bandit country" in South Armagh. Much of the film consisted of imagery of the British soldiers crawling through fields and undergrowth in fear of their lives. Even more pared-down and startling was Clarke's later film Elephant (1989), in which we see a series of murders committed on the streets of Belfast. No contextualisation or characterisation was provided. "Alan Clarke, out of all those directors [who have made films set in the Troubles], I revere and admire. Contact was stunning. Elephant was even bolder," says Greengrass.

Watch the trailer for 'Omagh'







Just occasionally, films set during the Troubles have been as conventional as any other genre movies. Thaddeus O'Sullivan's Nothing Personal (1995) was made with real intensity and edge but still seems like just another gangster movie. Jim Sheridan's The Boxer (1997) combined analysis of the tensions within the IRA in the mid-1990s with a story about an ageing fighter (Daniel Day-Lewis) with more than a passing resemblance to marlon Brando's character in On the Waterfront. Roger Michell's Titanic Town (1999), about a Belfast housewife (Julie Walters) trying to cluck and scold the warring parties into a ceasefire, lapsed into sitcom-like caricature. It certainly lacked the emotional depth of Terry George's Some Mother's Son (1996), which featured Helen Mirren as a middle-aged teacher and pacifist astounded to discover that her son is on hunger strike in the Maze Prison.

The films sometimes serve a secondary function: they can give voice to the victims. This was the case with Pete Travis's Omagh (2004),the docudrama exploring the events and aftermath of the 1998 bombing of the small market town.

Cast and crew were determined to make the film as authentic as possible. Travis tells a poignant story about a relative of one of the victims visiting the set on the day when the bombing was being recreated. He saw some photographs and asked how the film-makers had got hold of documentary photographs of Omagh. Travis had to explain that these were photos of the set. For him, and his cast and crew, it was a matter of honour to make the film as authentic as possible.

"Even now, justice seems to be eluding these families," Travis says of the relatives of the innocent people killed that day by the Real IRA. As yet, no one has been successfully convicted for the bombing. "The catalogue of errors by the police service is quite extraordinary," Travis says. "A lot of people responsible have still managed to elude justice. At the moment, it's like the families of Omagh are having to pay the price for peace. They are still basically being told to shut up and go away."

As Greengrass acknowledges, his film of Bloody Sunday (2002) was made in a different context from most of the earlier films. The Good Friday Agreement had been signed four years before. "I was very lucky. I made that film in the height of optimism. That definitely put wind in the sails [of the project]."

Bloody Sunday has the look of a 1970s World in Action documentary combined with the cinematic intensity of a thriller. The Belfast of the period is meticulously recreated, complete with grey skies, dingy interiors and graffiti strewn streets. Ask Greengrass why he decide to make the film and he says: "Here is this place, Northern Ireland, that I know very well. When you get into a conflict, the first thing that goes is shared narrative. Nobody agrees about anything, least of all history. Here we were at the high noon of the Good Friday negotiations. The mood was intensely optimistic. [We thought] let's take the one event – Bloody Sunday – for which there is definitely no shared narrative. Let's try to persuade a large number of people from Derry who were either on that march or whose family members were on that march, and a large group of soldiers who had served in Northern Ireland, and see if we can take the known facts and together shape a shared narrative cinematically. Then, when it is all done, we can all as a group say it must have been a bit like that."

Greengrass's film, like many of the other films set during the Troubles, has turned out to have far more universality of interest than their film-makers had originally envisaged. Many of these movies were made specifically for British and Irish audiences – and as a contribution to an ongoing political debate. Nonetheless, filmgoers from far further afield have warmed to the work, which often has a surprising resonance for them too. "Although it was about a small city in a conflict, an event that took place many years ago, if you watched in France or Germany or Italy or America, it spoke to the September-11 world. It was about what can go wrong when you're faced with these conflicts and how easy it is to overreact."

Travis talks about showing Omagh at a film festival in Santander, in the Basque country in Spain on the anniversary of the Madrid bombing. The audience responded as if it was their own story that was being told on screen.

'Bloody Sunday' and 'Omagh' are out now on DVD on Optimum

Arts and Entertainment
Saw point: Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence in ‘Serena’
film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
musicReview: 1989's songs attempt to encapsulate dramatic emotional change in a few striking lines
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker