In the Name of the Father, Jim Sheridan

The Claustrophobic Drama in ‘In the Name of the Father’ Still Haunts

The claustrophobic atmosphere in biographical crime drama In the Name of the Father creates a world where evil actions are made more remorseless by the silence surrounding them.

In the Name of the Father
Jim Sheridan
27 December 1993 (IE)

Scintillatingly produced and furnished with a desire for truth, Jim Sheridan‘s second collaboration with Daniel Day-Lewis is arguably more assured than Sheridan’s 1989 drama, My Left Foot, tackling a darker and more ambitious story than the more jocular tale of artist Christy Brown. Indeed, In the Name of the Father could be credited with modern Irish cinema’s direction, detailing the anxieties and displaced worries surrounding citizens North and South of the Irish border. The finished result features one of the most haunting speeches from the ’90s, bolstered by the actor’s real-life desire to see change: a real coup du cinema

In the Name of the Father cemented Ireland’s film industry reputation for producing hard-hitting dramas, piecing together a work that hinged on the conviction of its leads and not some obscure presence of spectral energy that so commonly featured in Hollywood epics. Day-Lewis plays Gerry Conlon with unique brio and gusto in the opening scenes, imitating Jimi Hendrix’s barrelling “Voodoo Chile” to any soldier or mother who wishes to listen to him. By the time we get to the second act, Gerry has abandoned this impish facade to confront the British legal system, who erroneously convict him as part of “The Guildford Four“. 

Alongside Day-Lewis, In the Name of the Father features a career-best performance from Peter William Postlethwaite, who plays Gerry’s father Patrick “Giuseppe” Conlon, another man wrongfully arrested following the 1974 Guildford Bombing. As it happens, by the time the film was released, Gerry Conlon had been released from prison to an Ulster that was etching itself towards peace. But the political divisions that had haunted the island were still incredibly apparent. Wisely or unwisely, Sheridan shied away from the jingoism that had cemented past IRA dramas, such as Neil Jordan’s chilling The Crying Game, of the year prior.

The passage of time for this superlative 1993 film continuously lessens the world’s one-sided view of the conflict between the IRA and England, nominally written off as an ideological dispute over territory between two larger islands. The dialogue is snappy (“Next time you’ll see Belfast, they’ll be flying day trips to the moon..”; ” There’s no reason to be scared. You have nothing to be scared about…”; ” Don’t give me Northern Ireland. I don’t want a bad trip.”) and the ensemble performances – varied as they are – do what they can to uphold the delicacy of the central dissertation. In geographical terms, In the Name of the Father predominantly takes place inside the prison itself, allowing viewers to voyage with the crooked/valiant parties. 

There is a tremendous image in the film when some of the prisoners elect to rebel against their officers. They entertain themselves with a packet of smokes to the images flickering on the television of protests demanding the release of Conlon. This scene helps to highlight the outrage that was felt across Ireland (and indeed, parts of Britain) at this juncture in history, causing many to doubt the sincerity of the British judicial system. 

An altruistic inmate – played by Paterson Joseph of Peep Show fame – introduces Gerry to his personal drug supply. This is no mere padding, as the LSD scene is at the centre of the film’s purpose. Like so many Irish prisoners before him, Gerry has to distract himself from the glumness that latches over him through a container of drugs packaged in the form of a jigsaw. That he gets to enjoy the drugs with a group of peers only helps to sell the emotion, offering him a moment of solace in an awful institution. But it is a perilously difficult endeavour: the drugs that distract him further the rift between him and his father, now sharing a prison cell full of reverie, rhetoric, and rosary beads. 

It is commonplace to describe Sheridan’s work as “polemical”, but anyone searching for a republican apotheosis would be better off reading Brendan Behan’s Borstal Boy. Watching In the Name of the Father on this occasion, I was moved by the relationship with the two members of the Conlon family, incarcerated for reasons beyond their control. After Giuseppe’s death, Gerry carries on the campaign, abandoning his quiet recourse for a louder, more fearsome form of protest. Aided by Gareth Pierce (played with raw nerve by Emma Thompson), Gerry returns to the courts hoping to find justice, even if peace must always evade him. (Tragically, the real-life Gerry Conlon struggled to pursue a more normal life following his release and suffered from addictions, anxieties, and suicidal thoughts until he died at the age of 60 in 2014.) 

Sheridan’s finished film is notable for its claustrophobic atmosphere, creating a world where evil actions are made more remorseless by the silence surrounding them. In an effort to make his depiction more authentic for the viewer, Day-Lewis volunteered to spend three nights in a prison cell, where he experienced the sleeplessness and paranoia that his character endured. This wasn’t an act of vanity, but curiosity: “How could I understand how an innocent man could sign that confession,” Day-Lewis admitted, “and destroy his own life.” Day-Lewis might have found some inspiration from the surroundings of his cell, but otherwise, he brought his own steely-eyed determination to the forefront, paying particular attention to the Belfast accent as he did so. 

Fittingly, the film ends with Gerry celebrating the legacy of a parent who died before a court exonerated his name. The story flashes back and forth with the prisoners, leading the audience into the thematic pulls, focusing on the conversations that draw the two men together. Buoyed by his faith, Giuseppe spends his nights praying while Gerry cries out for revolution, determined to liberate himself from the shackles that have stationed themselves to his arms. For a biographical crime drama based on turbulent events, In the Name of the Father was predictably met with controversy, and criticism was levelled at the prison’s living quarters Gerry and Giuseppe shared in the feature. (In reality, father and son were placed in different holdings). It wasn’t a study about penitentiary conditions but a tale about a father and son journeying together to the point of absolution.

In the early ’90s, the idea of producing a real-life drama about wrongly accused prisoners did not have the frisson of satisfaction that it might have now. In the Name of the Father didn’t concern itself with violence to make it a more visceral viewing experience, and the film could almost as easily have worked as a piece of theatre, considering the economy of the angles that made it into the finished work. (The finished work is only 133 minutes long and would be significantly longer if it was made these days. But the urgency adds a dimension to the film that might have been lost under a more protracted runtime.)

But to this day, In The Name of The Father grips your attention from its opening scene, and it never gives up on its central theme: hope. Gerry Conlon leaves the courtroom triumphantly, breathing in deeply the outside that has evaded him for years. “I’m a free man,” he shouts, “and I’m going out the front door!”