50 Dead Men Walking Review

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Belfast, 1987. Whippersnapper Martin McGartland (Sturgess) is recruited by English copper ‘Fergus’ (Kingsley) to infiltrate the IRA and act as a ‘tout’, or informer. As McGartland moves up the chain of command, the stakes get higher — and his exit strateg


It’s hard to get your head around precisely how perilous Martin McGartland’s daily life was while informing on the IRA during the peak of the Troubles. Or rather, it’s hard for most of us to imagine even why anyone would ever put themselves in such extreme jeopardy, especially as McGartland (or the McGartland of Kari Skogland’s script, at least) wasn’t even that fond of the British. He’s evidently a smart man — he must have realised there was a high chance he’d have to one day lead his life in hiding, which is precisely what happened. And not entirely in hiding, either: Kari Skogland’s adaptation of McGartland’s memoir opens with a brutal jolt as an older, twitchier McGartland is suddenly perforated at close range by a pistol-wielding assassin — the story playing out in flashback as blood gushes over his car seat.

It would have been tough for any actor to ‘sell’ the willing tout to us while also retaining the ambivalence required to stop his character’s ascension into cheesy, uninteresting heroism. (Besides, there are many still out there for whom McGartland is the antithesis of hero.) It’s for this reason that Fifty Dead Men Walking is, above all, Jim Sturgess’ movie, and proof that the London-born 27 year-old has the grit and complexity to surpass his cuteness — something he couldn’t show us in his last lead role, in casino rip-off caper 21.

After we’re bludgeoned by the framing device, Sturgess’ McGartland is introduced as a mulleted wideboy, flogging ripped-off clothes and trash-talking the soldiers who patrol his streets. But every step of the character's evolution — nurtured by handler Fergus (Sir Ben Kingsley, whose wig and Northern accent are initally distracting) — is taken by Sturgess with conviction and smooth naturalism. It’s just a shame that Skogland herself isn’t as confident, filling the screen with ‘helpful’ captions that name various players — even in the news footage of the likes of Gerry Adams and Ian Paisley! Such spoonfeeding softens the dramatic blows, suggesting Skogland doesn’t trust her audience to follow what’s going on, when it’s the movie’s emotional heft, rather than its presentation of the facts, that should give it the requisite power.

[We have been contacted directly by Martin McGartland who has asked us to clarify a number of points in relation to the film "Fifty Dead Men Walking" [which we reviewed in our May edition / above and] which was referred to in our interview with Jim Sturgess in our April edition.

Mr McGartland has asked us to make it clear that he does not endorse the film, which was only inspired by his book of the same name, rather than an adaption of it. He has also referred us to the disclaimers at the beginning and the end of the film which read as follows:

"This film is inspired by the book "fifty dead men walking" written by Martin McGartland and Nicholas Davies. Some of the events, characters and scenes in the film have been changed. Martin McGartland and Nicholas Davies are the joint authors of the book "fifty dead men walking"." The screenplay to the film is inspired by the book although many aspects and characters have been changed, the screenplay was not written or approved by Martin McGartland or Nicholas Davies and is not a reproduction or adaptation of the book or any substantial part of it.]

Think Donnie Brasco, with the IRA instead of the Mafia. Jim Sturgess dominates with a star-making turn, although some stylistic slip-ups let him down a little.