Making films out of real-life events is always going to involve compromises. Deciding which elements to leave in or take out must be tricky, as there’s a fine line between scripting events that are true but dull or fake and interesting.
The latest film to take on the challenge of dramatising real events is Kari Skogland’s Fifty Dead Men Walking. Beginning on a similar fashion to another Irish-set (albeit Dublin-based) biopic, 1998’s The General, we are introduced to a bearded Martin McGartland (Jim Sturgess) as he walks to his car somewhere in rural Canada.
Moments later McGartland’s been shot by an unknown gunman, leaving him for dead as the film flashes back to the Belfast of 1988 where the young McGartland is acting the scally around the streets of his hometown.
While the British police occupy the streets of Belfast, and the IRA run their own operations, McGartland and his friend Sean (Kevin Zegers) are trying to make a fast buck in their own way, selling dodgy goods from door-to-door.
As events escalate, McGartland is drawn into local IRA politics, only to find himself the subject of British interest in the shape of senior British Special Branch operative ‘Fergus’ (Ben Kingsley) who recruits Martin as an informant against the IRA.
The filmmakers are keen to point out that the script is “inspired” by the autobiography of Martin McGartland, though quite how much of the finished film is original material is hard to tell.
The scrapes that McGartland gets into (and barely out of) are tense and expertly directed, the film as impressive looking as any Hollywood epic, though with 80s fashions instead of American gloss.
The politics of the day may always be in the background but they’re never so prominent that they overwhelm the personal drama. Sturgess is a strong presence as McGartland, his youthful swagger evolving into something more forlorn as events start to overwhelm him.
Kingsley offers strong support as Fergus, more low-key than usual for most of the picture, while Natalie Press is excellent as girlfriend Lara.
The only weak link in the film is US import Rose McGowan as Grace, simply not convincing in either accent or acting.
Fifty Dead Men Walking manages to shine a light on a a troubled time in British history while provide a few hours intelligent entertainment for anyone looking for a well made thriller. Whether everything is 100% factual doesn’t really matter when a film is this good.
Fifty Dead Men Walking is out now in UK cinemas