Forget about the overgrown-adolescent lovers of Titanic and the May-December Looney Tunes lovebirds of As Good As It Gets. There's an adult love story in town cloaked in the dead weight title of The Boxer. Its sexuality can't be separated from its spirituality; the heroine has a grip on her man not because of her high-quality pheromones but because she holds the key to his soul. Cursed with a cryptic brooding-dreamboat ad campaign and good-but-not-great reviews, The Boxer has become an invisible movie, swamped in the wake of blockbusters.
It's possible that the film is a victim of mass dejà vu. The boxer hero is a former IRA soldier; maybe audiences and press alike consider the subject of "The Troubles" all used up after the celebrated 1993 collaboration between Daniel Day-Lewis and director Jim Sheridan -- In the Name of the Father, the based-on-fact story of an innocent family falsely convicted of being an IRA bombing unit. Not even the powerhouse ardor of Day-Lewis and Emily Watson (Breaking the Waves) has generated the cafe buzz or water-cooler chatter that could get crowds into theaters. When publications as supposedly cosmopolitan as Slate view The Boxer as a manipulative rendering of Northern Ireland's Civil War, why would art-house audiences seek it out?
But viewers who do wander in may just be mesmerized. When I saw it, the audience's involvement deepened palpably as the film went on. Watson's choked-with-passion responses to Day-Lewis' declarations of devotion elicited gasps of their own; the climactic showdown between him and his main oppressor won cheers and cries of relief. The villain, by the way, is not a British soldier or a cop but an extremist member of the IRA. The hero is a slugger for peace.
Iconographically and emotionally, Day-Lewis' boxer, Danny Flynn, links up in your mind with all those American-movie loners who roam into a booby-trapped situation, and then defuse or settle it -- and leave. (Think Alan Ladd in Shane, Charles Bronson in Walter Hill's Hard Times.) He's the lean, alert figure who walks the streets alone while people on either side try to take his measure. In American films, the loner is apt to be the new guy in town, unattached and unencumbered. What's different about The Boxer -- what makes it searingly romantic and mature and real -- is that when Danny hits town, he's really coming home. He was a Belfast champion whose fleeting involvement with the IRA landed him in stir for 14 years and separated him from his true love, Maggie (Watson), the daughter of an IRA leader (Brian Cox). He leaves terrorism to his old mates and reopens a nonsectarian boxing club with his now-alcoholic ex-manager (Ken Stott). Danny makes himself a stranger, but he's struggling to build a community he can believe in, not to fix things up and go. But Maggie has become a moral-political show wife for an imprisoned IRA soldier. Her marriage was empty before her husband went to jail, but she's a role model for wives who must stay faithful to IRA spouses behind bars. When Danny rekindles their tender feelings, he antagonizes militants who are already gunning for him because he brings Protestants and Catholics together in the ring.
The movie constantly evokes the phrase Marcel Ophuls used as the title of his epic Northern Ireland documentary, A Sense of Loss. It's replete with poignant vignettes, like a roll call for dead veterans of the boxing club, and turbulent moments of truth, like a rematch between Danny and a Protestant fighter that triggers a horrific act of terrorism. Yet in its rugged gentleness and tactile physicality, the picture The Boxer most resembles isn't In the Name of the Father but My Left Foot -- Sheridan and Day-Lewis' salute to the cerebral palsy-afflicted writer and painter Christy Brown. Sheridan once again helps Day-Lewis explore a man of temperament, shaping the movie around the actor's undiluted sensibility. Once again, they succeed in making the interior exterior -- especially in the matter-of-fact poetry of the boxing matches, which are more about reconnecting with humanity than landing punches.
Day-Lewis goes way beyond drawing a skillful portrait of a principled, competent individual: He expresses the rigorous beauty of principle and competence. Everything Day-Lewis does keys the viewer into Danny's internal drama, from the simple efficiency of his sinewy body to the focus and intensity of each freighted glance. Danny takes satisfaction from discipline, but with his tamped-down looks and occasional bursts of anger and affection, Day-Lewis also signals the sacrifices it exacts in energy, humor, and passion. Danny becomes that rarity in movies -- a noble character. Day-Lewis persuades you that his desire to reunite with Maggie isn't just a want, but a necessity.
And Watson gives this rueful woman a fierce yet restrained hunger all her own. As Danny strides back into Belfast, she's dynamically watchful: Her huge, beaming eyes are like diving pools, reflecting and enlarging entire scenes. With little more than a series of clandestine conversations capped by a single kiss, she and Day-Lewis fashion a contemporary chivalric romance. He's thirsting for love, but he won't push it: She's in as much danger as he is, and, with a son, has more to lose. He once made the mistake of thinking for both of them, going off to jail without discussing their future -- as if they had none. He won't repeat that error. Together, Maggie and Danny decide to be lovers.
Ken Stott is funny and touching in the best Walter Brennan manner as Danny's former manager and sidekick. And Brian Cox is equally wily and haunting as Maggie's dad, an IRA chief who pursues a negotiated peace. Cox conveys the difficulty and pain behind his decision: He knows he's changing courses and confusing his followers. His leonine head sags; his mouth twists down as if in expectation of disaster. But the hope that militants can lay down their arms fuels his actions -- and, indeed, the film.
This complexity with-in simplicity is apparently what unhinged Slate. Pundit James Surowiecki, a fumbler when it comes to movies, recently lumped The Boxer in with a slew of pictures ostensibly soft on the IRA. To judge his credibility, consider that Surowiecki also declares that In the Name of the Father positioned an IRA leader as "the one person in prison who stands for authority and justice." In fact, the movie pilloried him as a coldblooded killer, and held up the hero's anti-IRA father as the actual moral authority. To the cinematically dyslexic Surowiecki, even a classic like Carol Reed's wrenching, masterly Odd Man Out is one more "pro-IRA" movie, though it's based on a famous anti-revolutionary novel about a dying Irish rebel who spends his last hours mourning his bloody misdeeds. (Aesthetic judgment aside, you'd think a credited business writer would believe in giving accurate accounts.)
The Boxer is a wonderful movie because it recognizes that even a morally scarred IRA warlord may wish to transcend the gory politics of bombs and guns. Danny forces Maggie's dad to confront the price of militancy; the boxer's eloquence lies in his rough-hewn humanity, and in how he cherishes the IRA boss' daughter. This movie is not primarily about political or pugilistic muscle. It's about flesh and blood. And love.