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50 Dead Men Walking is an unsettling reminder of life in Ireland during the Troubles. Inspired by a true memoir by IRA informer Martin McGartland, the film recalls the treacherous times in Ireland when no one could be trusted and day-to-day security was a tenuous thing at best. The film is buoyed by top-level performances from Jim Sturgess as McGartland and Ben Kingsley as the British Special Branch agent assigned to handle his case.
It’s the late 1980’s in Belfast. Martin McGartland is a low-life hoodlum and working class laborer. When he’s picked up by the police, British intelligence takes an interest in him because of his connections to some IRA members they would like to get their hands on. That’s when agent Fergus steps in and starts playing with McGartland’s loyalties. Soon he’s got the young man eating out of the palm of his hand and before he knows it, McGartland is a spy on the IRA for the Brits, doing things he never imagined himself doing.
Both actors give credibility to their roles and invest us in the deceitful world they live in. Kingsley gives a quietly intense portrayal of his dirty intelligence agent, while Sturgess’ would-be spy is at once charming and pathetic. The result is a marvelous game of cat-and-mouse as each slips deeper into the other’s world until they are forced to make some very difficult and life-changing decisions.
50 Dead Men Walking is shot in a gritty style which suits the era and the content perfectly, capturing tense chase sequences through the back streets of Belfast and heart-stopping scenes of torture in dark and grimy warehouses. Director Kari Skogland does a first-rate job of transferring the horrible sectarian violence of the Troubles to the screen.
50 Dead Men Walking is a stunning effort worth your time and attention. Releasing by Phase IV films January 5, 2010.
Del Harvey is the founder of Film Monthly, a film teacher, a writer and a film critic in Chicago.
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