Fact and fiction blur uncomfortably in yet another emotive film set in Ulster. Mic Moroney reports
It might seem surprising that Jim Sheridan has returned to Northern Ireland with his powerful and provocative new film, The Boxer.

He was mauled for In the Name of the Father and savaged for his production about the IRA hunger strikers, Some Mother's Son.

It is not just surprising. It is depressingly timely. The peace process is crumbling. New tensions are developing. His celluloid images find their echoes on the streets and on our television screens.

Set in Belfast some time before the 1994 ceasefire, The Boxer is about a former IRA prisoner, Danny (Daniel Day Lewis, right), who, having emerged from a 14-year prison sentence, is peacefully rehabilitating the local boxing club. Hesitant lovebeams emanate from his childhood sweetheart (Emily Watson), who, though separated, remains a prisoner's wife.

More powerful by far is the raw adrenaline of the boxing bouts, with Day Lewis taking and landing some very real slaps - he had, after all, been coached by Barry McGuigan, whose official biography Sheridan once wrote and whose life story provided the film's original inspiration - all filmed with Sheridan's trademark gutty, bloody-faced realism; neatly sidestepping the overblown slo-mo memories of Raging Bull.

Sheridan recalled: "Barry, when he was not that well-known a boxer, said on American TV: 'Leave the fighting to McGuigan', which was kind of naive and innocent for a guy to say to both sides of the conflict in Ireland. I thought it was great and it set me thinking about the whole idea of fighting, and rules, and rules of boxing, and rules of warfare and the contradiction of somebody in a violent sport asking people to stop fighting. In a way, it's a weird metaphor of the conflict, with everything fought out within the Queensberry rules. It's the only thing that unites the two sides. It's like a more primitive church, a baser religion, more primal..."

There are also disturbing echoes of TV "reality" in Chris Menges's grainy, low-lit, fast-edited cinematography; the camera recoiling at devastating left hooks, the shock-wave of car bombs, street chaos or the flurry of summary executions - as the contained rage of the narrative finally erupts into sickening and inevitable violence.

Doesn't the verite-style have a peculiar effect of blurring the boundaries between news and fiction? Does he ever worry that, in exploiting contemporary history in the name of Hollywood, he is using a very powerful medium to influence perceptions of a highly sensitive politician situation?

"Yeah, well, the horrible thing about watching the Troubles on telly when they started was that it was exciting," muses Sheridan.

"Well, I'm just telling a story as powerfully as I can, and in terms of the way I see things; and, at the end of the day, if people want to have a go at me, it's better to have them talking about things rather than shooting each other."

He began writing the script in November 1996, after a bomb in London's Docklands brought the IRA ceasefire to an end - and, he says, "turned Some Mother's Son into an IRA propaganda movie and completely changed Neil Jordan's Michael Collins. So, with The Boxer, I was trying to not make it a specific time, and just go for the narrative - rather than worrying about taking a reality and documenting it. Essentially I'm making a fiction."

Yes, but from something that is far from fiction: "But that's the definition of what you do as a film-maker. There's an arrogance involved in taking any situation and making a story around it, because it's a point of view - and sometimes people involved in a situation tend to be stuck inside it. It probably happened to Adams and McGuinness, that they hadn't been out of Northern Ireland from the time when they were flown to England for a day in 1973 until 1995. Twenty-two years: that would do your head in..."

Certainly the IRA characters in the film are a chilling bunch of local heavies. "I wouldn't say I've a nationalistic point of view - it could be republican in the sense of constitutional egalitarianism. I think part of the problem in the North is that one set of people look up to the Royal Family, which is sectarian. By law - not by deed or implication, but by law - they can't marry Catholics. So you can argue that the sectarianism is in English society, as much as on the streets in the North. I'm talking about the specific superiority concept that I think is the basis of a lot of the Troubles, certainly how they started...

"Think of it this way: there's the sun, and every day you see it moving. But you know it's not moving around the earth, because you have this mental picture of the earth revolving around it, so you live with a visual lie. Now, when Galileo introduced that idea, it caused deaths, torture, madness - because people didn't want to change the picture they had already."

'The Boxer' opens this Thursday.