Daniel Day-Lewis has always verged on obsession when it comes to his on-screen roles. For his part as cerebral palsy-sufferer Christy Brown in My Left Foot, he insisted on remaining in a wheelchair throughout filming. For The Boxer, he was no less driven. He trained with ex-fisticuffs champ Barry McGuigan for two years before filming began, and kept himself in fighting form for the entire four-month shoot. He also scratched a prison tattoo on his hand, and spent months perfecting the Belfast accent.
But what's surprising, after such diligent preparation, is that Day-Lewis' performance is remarkably restrained: Danny is the quiet centre in a film of many strong characters. A lesser actor might have flown into thespian overkill; instead, Day-Lewis steals his scenes with strong, powerful silences.
Director Jim Sheridan, with whom Day-Lewis collaborated on My Left Foot and In The Name Of The Father, has shown audiences several different pictures of Ireland in the last 10 years. He has also introduced many Irish clichés into film lore - the brawling families, the pub culture, the odd horse wandering around. But this is his most balanced look at a society struggling with change.
Here there is no black and white. Neither Protestants nor Catholics, IRA nor police are wholly bad or good. Some people want peace; some have been fighting so long they fear the inevitable loss of power that comes with any kind of resolution.
In between all this is the boxing and the love story. The latter is perfectly interwoven with the drama, with stolen glances and brief touches building into a passion that can't be denied. The boxing fits in less comfortably. Although Danny's pugilistic ambitions are well conveyed, the fights are coldly choreographed. Some are shot in slow motion and, as a result, seem less real than other parts of the film. The contrast is most pointed when a riot breaks out just as one fight ends: the chilling violence that follows is far more convincing.
This is also one of the first Irish-set films to focus on the women of the war-torn areas. In these communities, the integrity of the prisoners' wives is held up as a behavioural ideal, which is why Emily's desire for Danny and a life of her own causes so many problems.
If such dramas normally leave you cold, you may be surprised by The Boxer. It sucks you in - you find yourself rooting for an ending that will symbolise not only hope for them, but hope for a peaceful solution to `the Irish problem'.
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Although difficult to approach without prejudice, this is a truly masterful piece of storytelling. Intelligent and moving, The Boxer is a film for people who favour uncompromising dramas with a vicious kick of social reality.