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The Boxer reunites Daniel Day-Lewis and director/writer Jim Sheridan after their successes with My Left Foot (1990) and In The Name Of The Father (1993). It takes us into the streets of Belfast, Ireland, where bullets shatter apartment windows and bomb explosions rip out storefronts. It's a quieting, disturbing picture of people who live with the constant threat of violence. Daniel Day-Lewis plays a former IRA member named Danny Flynn. After 14 years in prison, he returns to the same street where he and his girlfriend, Maggie (Emily Watson, an Academy Award nominee in last year's Breaking the Waves), fell in love. But Maggie didn't wait for Danny. And he refused to ask her to wait for him. As a result, Maggie married Danny's best friend and had a son. Maggie's husband is now in prison himself, so Maggie attends meetings of solidarity with other wives whose husbands are in prison. As Danny and Maggie are gradually drawn back together, their relationship threatens to split the community as it challenges the solidarity of the IRA.
The Boxer works most effectively as it shows how easily the men who believe in violence can destroy what everyone else has worked for. Even after Danny Flynn has used his love of boxing to help pull Catholics and Protestants back together again in the local boxing club, the community can be easily ripped apart. Peace in Ireland is fragile--especially so when some men thrive on fear and violence. "I'm not a killer, Maggie," Danny says. "But this place makes me want to kill."
Sheridan takes us into the world of Danny and Maggie while using a low-key approach that emphasizes the quiet moments in their lives. After Danny is released from prison, he avoids Maggie. But eventually they meet. He doesn't know what to say. They politely exchange hellos--and then he walks away. Later he tells her, "I've lived with your face in silence for 14 years. It's hard to talk to the real you."
Sheridan also effectively contrasts the boxing scenes in Belfast, where families are drawn to the boxing area, with the genteel, gentleman's-club boxing in London. While the boxing club in Belfast becomes a center of hope for the community, in London the spectators sit at dinner tables, politely tapping on their water glasses instead of clapping and cheering.
For Danny, the boxing ring provides a structure that's absent in the chaotic streets of Belfast. It allows him to rebuild his dignity and communicate with the community in a way that fosters cooperation and understanding. But as he draws Catholics and Protestants together again, the IRA watches carefully, nervously considering peace, while factions within the IRA argue about which direction to take.
I wish the filmmakers had found a way to help us get to know Danny Flynn better. After spending nearly two hours with him, he still felt like a stranger. But nonetheless, The Boxer is a powerful film that avoids the standard Hollywood cliches and provides a poignant picture of the people who struggle to keep hope alive amid death and destruction.
[rating: 3 of 4 stars]