‘General’ treats modern Ireland justly

Special to the State Press Magazine

Films that are based on true stories can be such a drag. They’re either too preachy, like Saving Private Ryan, or too sentimental, like Apollo 13. Nothing against Tom Hanks, mind you, but those two examples just leaped to mind.

The General, opening Friday exclusively at the Harkins Camelview Theatre, is right on the money.

The Sony Pictures Classics film stars Brendan Gleeson as Martin Cahill, an Irishman who planned daring daylight robberies and thumbed his nose at the police, the church and the Irish Republican Army amid the political chaos of the 1980s.

Cahill’s story unfolds smoothly in moody black and white. I don’t remember the 80s in black and white, but the technique highlights the film’s timeless theme: there is honor among thieves.

Cahill’s resentment for authority is clear. American actor Jon Voight plays Inspector Ned Kenny, the policeman determined to bring Cahill to justice. Kenny is there when the entire population of Cahill’s neighborhood is uprooted to make way for modern apartments, urging the just-released convict to look at the relocation as a chance to start a new life and lead his family as an honest man.

But Cahill remains, living in a trailer after his family has evacuated, then living in a tent when the trailer is burned down. It is then that Cahill openly declares his hatred for the police, the government and the church. He makes it his mission in life to humiliate the police — Kenny in particular — by stealing rare paintings on a whim and robbing a jewelry store during the morning rush hour.

He also has an open affair with his wife’s younger sister, and fathers children by both women.

Cahill’s resentment for the church may stem from an experience during his first incarceration as a child for stealing. A priest approaches him for sex during the night, but he fights back and is himself beaten when all the other boys awake to see what is going on.

Gleeson is delightful as Cahill, and plays him almost as a modern Robin Hood. From his vast stolen wealth he gives much to his fellow neighbors, even though he knows they lie to him about their circumstances to obtain his gifts. He can rarely go outside without having a television camera stuck into his face, to the point where he wears ski masks or covers his face feebly with his hand in public. And you thought it only happened in America.

It’s refreshing to see a film about modern Ireland that does not involve Harrison Ford, Brad Pitt or Darby O’Gill. Also, the IRA is usually cast as either the villain or the hero in such films as Patriot Games and The Devil’s Own — all good films in their own right. But in The General, the group is almost an unremarkable fixture as it demands a piece of Cahill’s action. The legendary IRA becomes just a fact of life to be dealt with like any other.

The General marks the reunion of producer/writer/director John Boorman and Voight, who last worked together on the Academy Award-nominated Deliverance.

The movie’s only real drawback is that it runs just over two hours long and begins to drag near the end. Boorman shows as much of the planning of Cahill’s capers as he does the crimes themselves.

The film also stars Adrian Dunbar as Cahill’s right-hand-man, Noel Curley. Dunbar has a role in the upcoming Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace. Maria Doyle Kennedy plays Cahill’s wife, Frances, and Angeline Ball plays her sister, Tina. The pair is convincing as sisters who are basically sharing a husband.

The General
*** (of 5)
starring Jon Voight, Brendan Gleeson.
directed by John Boorman
official website