In the Name of the Father
Produced and directed by Jim Sheridan
Screenplay by Terry George and Jim Sheridan
Based on the autobiography of Gerry Conlon
Released by Universal Pictures

Franz Kafka was right about metamorphoses. The usual direction is from the human condition to something lower, the cockroach or whatever insect it was that Gregor Samsa became. Movies, though, are a popular art, depend on mass audiences, and, with more or less calculation, appeal to the mass taste. Movies prefer stories of transformation from bugdom upward, or, as in this picture, from fecklessness to something approaching sainthood.

There is a fine moment of vindication at the end of In the Name of the Father, when the judge dismisses the case of The Crown v. Gerry Conlon and bangs his gavel. The audience in the courtroom cheers as Conlon (Daniel Day-Lewis) shrugs off his guards and announces that he is a free man and will walk out the front door. His lawyer, Mrs. Pierce (Emma Thompson), smiles in approval, and the crowd outside the courthouse roars in a celebration in which we are invited to join. . . . But of what? The correction of an injustice? The inevitable triumph of good over evil? The lesser contention that, if only through Murphy’s Law, evil doesn’t always win out?

Conlon was one of the Guildford Four, accused by the Brits of having bombed a pub on the relatively flimsy ground that he was an Irish Catholic, had been in England at the time, and had gone back to Belfast with a fistful of money. Early on, they discovered that his alibi was plausible, that there had been a vagrant named Burke in the park in London where Conlon claimed to have been at the time of the bombing, but this was a war. Perhaps they believed that if they arrested and convicted anyone at all, the real bombers might take advantage of the opportunity and stop their acts of terrorism or at least lay low for a while.

Conlon wasn’t a bomber and had nothing to do with the LR.A., which wouldn’t have had him even if he’d volunteered because he was an unreliable, lying, stealing, all but worthless layabout who was interested only in drugs, free love, and whatever easy money he could get hold of without too much effort. His transformation during the course of his 15 years of imprisonment (three and a half of them in solitary confinement) to a condition of some worth and weight, even of some wisdom, is the story Jim Sheridan is interested in telling, and he manages it well enough, I suppose. Daniel Day-Lewis is as good as he has ever been, and we mostU believe in the change his imprisonment brings about in him. But the real Conlon, whom I heard interviewed on the radio a few days before I went to the movie, is much more commanding than Lewis lets himself be. Conlon’s laconic testimony to his suffering was eloquent and incontrovertible. And his punishments went far beyond what the movie’s prison scenes dare to suggest.

The politics of the setting is all but irrelevant. The English in the film behave amazingly badly (but then, during the week I saw the film, Gerry Adams, the head of Sinn Fein, visited New York and the English demonstrated to the world how foolish they can be by broadcasting his CNN interview but having an actor read his lines so that his voice would not pollute their air waxes). Yet the film is none too sympathetic to the I.R.A. either, and we are given to understand that their terrorist tactics are designed to show up the English as fascists, thugs, and bullies. Conlon is an innocent victim in a war, as the real I.R.A. bomber explains to him when he’s caught and put in the same prison, adding, in a nice reference to The Informer, “I’m sorry for your trouble.”

That the transformation has something to do with Conlon’s relationship with his father seems clear. The title tells us so, and the most implausible manipulation of Conlon’s story is the assignment of both father and son to the same cell to provide opportunities for Gerry and his Da’ to interact. How it works is a mystery, but something happens to the son. Other men might have been broken by the imposition of such punishment, which was, as Conlon argues, all the harder to bear because of his innocence. On the other side, there are only odd hints and inklings. Conlon remembers bits of his childhood—that he clung with his little hand to his Da’s big hand, which smelled of tobacco. Happiness, he says, he still associates with that faint smell of tobacco.

It is the death of Gerry’s father, Giuseppi, that turns him, somehow, into a man. The real fervor of the film is here, and the picture is worth seeing for Day-Lewis’s Conlon and for Pete Fostlethwaite’s dignifiedly restrained father. The machinery of the film, though, is awkward. By a clumsily contrived accident, Mrs. Pierce, while preparing her appeal, is handed the wrong set of files. She asks for a file In the Name of the Father and discovers that there are others in the name of the son—including one marked in magisterial majuscules: “NOT TO BE SHOWN TO THE DEFENSE.” I thought of a scene in some Woody Allen movie in which a couple of secret agents meet and exchange the code phrase; “I am a spy.” Allen, of course, was trying to be funny. Still, the movie doesn’t depend on such plot details. The point is that, as in Henry V, a father’s death can be the occasion for a spiritual regeneration and redemption of the kind we see Conlon undergo, and this transformation is what the passion and intensity of Sheridan and Day-Lewis manage credibly to convey.