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'The Boxer': an Oddly Detached Look at Northern Ireland's Troubles

The political and religious troubles in Northern Ireland have caused untold suffering for more decades than anyone would like to remember, capturing the world's sympathy but frustrating all efforts to resolve them on a permanent basis. When a solution does arrive, part of the credit will belong to novelists, filmmakers, and other storytellers who have kept attention focused on the region's predicament in a sincere and intelligent way.

No artists stand out with more distinction in this regard than Jim Sheridan and Terry George, who coscripted "The Boxer," cinema's latest exploration of the militant Irish Republican Army and its effects on both private lives and public policies.

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Sheridan and George previously wrote "In the Name of the Father," still the most incisive account of how IRA activism can affect the experiences of people entangled with it. George also wrote and directed "Some Mother's Son," based on the wrenching history of an IRA hunger strike. Sheridan's credits include "My Left Foot," an international hit for Daniel Day-Lewis, whose intensive acting gives "The Boxer" some of its most powerful moments.

The title character of "The Boxer" is a prizefighter who's spent the past 14 years in a British prison for IRA-related violence. He stayed true to his code during this long incarceration, refusing to inform on associates still at large. Returning to his old neighborhood when his sentence is over, he expects to be treated with a reasonable amount of dignity and loyalty.

But the political climate is still volatile, and old cronies are suspicious of his new desire to stay as far away from trouble as possible. Adding to the highly charged atmosphere is his renewed romance with a long-ago sweetheart. As the daughter of an IRA officer and wife of a man currently jailed for IRA activity, she has become a walking flash point for rivalry, jealousy, and territoriality among her neighbors.

As fascinating as the story of "The Boxer" frequently is, it never builds the fierce emotional power of "In the Name of the Father" or "Some Mother's Son," which were more successful at infusing their historical topics with unabashedly human feelings.

The screenplay of "The Boxer" spends too much time and energy setting up the basic situations of its plot, then does a spotty job of blending the material's personal and political aspects. The film often seems oddly detached, as if its makers were more interested in the social and cultural ingredients of their tale than in the living, breathing people who populate it.

The performances often rise above these problems. Day-Lewis reclaims his position as one of today's most dependably talented young actors, and Emily Watson follows up impressively on the promise many felt she showed in 1996's "Breaking the Waves," for which she won numerous prizes. British stage and screen veterans Brian Cox, Gerard McSorley, and Ken Stott head the solid supporting cast. Chris Menges, whose work includes Neil Jordan's historical drama "Michael Collins," did the dark-hued cinematography.

* Rated R. Contains violence related to terrorism, personal conflict, and prizefighting.

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