Fifty Dead Men Walking

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

7 August

Mata Hari born, 1876

On this day in 1876, a woman was born who became so famous as a spy that her name is still synonymous with sexy female treachery. Margaretha Geertruida Zelle was born in the Netherlands and died in front of a firing squad in Paris 41 years later. As a child she had been well educated by her well-to-do parents, but the family fortunes crumbled along with her parents’ marriage and by the age of 13 Margaretha was shuttling between relatives. At 18 she married an officer in the Dutch colonial army and moved to the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia today). The marriage was not successful but Margaretha learnt to dance in the Indonesian style, joined a dance troupe and took the name Mata Hari. The family moved back to the Netherlands, where the marriage finally fell apart and Margaretha moved to Paris and joined a circus as a horse rider, later adding exotic dancing to her repertoire. She also assumed the identity of Mata Hari full time, passing herself off as a Javanese princess. By the time war broke out Mata Hari’s dancing career was over and she was better known as the mistress of various wealthy men. Being a neutral Netherlander she was able to travel freely during the war, and it was always assumed she was a spy. The British believed she was a French spy. The French however believed she was a German spy and, having intercepted messages which they believed identified Mata Hari as a spy with the code name H-21, arrested her in the Hotel Elysée Palace. She was tried, found guilty and shot by firing squad on 15 October 1917.

Fifty Dead Men Walking (2008, dir: Kari Skogland)

A true story told from the perspective of the man who lived it, a man who is still in hiding, somewhere in Canada if the stories are true. The man is Martin McGartland, who was a feisty young Catholic lad in the 1970s when he was recruited by the British Special Branch to do some spying for them. He’s spying against the IRA, “his people”, though the cocksure Martin isn’t really that into all the IRA stuff, since it puts a damper on his own freedom. To him, paramilitaries, of whatever stripe, are a plague.

This is a film about McGartland (Jim Sturgess) and his handler Fergus (Ben Kingsley), about how a fairly normal, uninvolved young man gets drawn into the Special Branch’s orbit and becomes so deeply involved in “the struggle” that he must rue the day he first took the bait. We don’t need to know McGartland’s motivation. Maybe it was just curiosity. But once he’s in we know it: his handlers will expose him if he tries to back out. The only way out is to keep burrowing deeper.

Jim Sturgess, an actor who struggles in the wrong role (see One Day for evidence), is in his element here, playing McGartland as a very wary man in a performance that is superficially understated yet is robust enough to stand up to Ben Kingsley in a series of intense one-on-one scenes in which Special Branch Fergus coaxes and bullies the increasingly nervous McGartland to do his bidding. Matching Kingsley in any film is no mean feat; here it’s heroic. The film’s dramatic masterstroke is to keep this as a two-sided cat-and-mouse thriller. The other paramilitaries, the Unionists, don’t feature at all, which has the effect of depoliticising events to a great extent – we’re simply watching a mole and wondering how/when/if he’s going to get caught.

Director Kari Skogland lays on the kneecappings, the beatings and the injustices early on, so we understand that it’s a dirty business. More than that, we understand the danger that McGartland is in. Skogland also has a good eye for atmosphere, procedure and the telling detail, the food and drink of any thriller. The casting of Rose McGowan might seem to work against this artistic decision to “keep it real” but she is in fact entirely convincing as an IRA babe who also might or might not be working for the British as a “Mata Hari”, as Fergus puts it.

Thematically and in terms of texture, Fifty Dead Men Walking is similar to Shadowdancer, and it got pretty much the same reception critically. Which is to say a bit “meh”. Is this because it doesn’t try to hammer home a message, doesn’t seem overly interested in good guy/bad guy dynamics? Quite probably. I find that to be one of its many strengths, though I could have done with a bit less of the melodrama and the shading into City of God-style dramatic lighting towards the end. The film doesn’t need it.

Why Watch?

  • A really good Jim Sturgess performance
  • 1970s Northern Ireland convincingly caught
  • It’s morally complex
  • An unusual spy thriller

Fifty Dead Men Walking – Watch it now at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

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