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Fifty Dead Men Walking

Film about Northern Ireland depicts explosive passions without indulging in brutality

By Kevin Spurgaitis

Fifty Dead Men Walking
Directed by Kari Skogland, starring Ben Kingsley and Jim Sturgess
(Phase 4 Films)

In the 1980s, when Northern Ireland’s civil conflict was at its peak, 22-year-old hooligan Martin McGartland was recruited by the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) to infiltrate and spy on the Provisional Irish Republican Army. McGartland, a Catholic and a nationalist, earnestly collaborated with British police believing that he could help save innocent lives on both sides.

Inspired by this true story, Fifty Dead Men Walking tells the story of Northern Ireland’s Troubles — the era of violent, deadly confrontations between IRA terrorists and British army “invaders.” Bookended by the 1999 incident that has McGartland discovered in Canadian exile, the film is largely set in Belfast, where he and his world-weary RUC handler, Fergus, work to prevent impending terrorist acts. But McGartland’s position consumes him as his mission grows ever more dangerous. Living under the constant threat of exposure, he nevertheless continues as an informant until he is discovered and then forced to escape against all odds. 

The film depicts explosive passions without indulging in brutality. The bloodshed is reserved for pivotal scenes involving interrogations and summary executions. And as Sturgess’s character undertakes this perilous work, audiences can’t help but pray that he will avoid exposure himself.

The storytelling is occasionally awkward and at times too drawn out. But unlike other films depicting the Troubles, Fifty Dead Men Walking treads a political tightrope, neither condemning nor condoning the atrocities committed by British police and Northern Irish dissidents. Instead, it serves as a balanced retrospective, building intrigue from the ground up with nothing more than thickly accented dialogue.

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