Steven Spielberg once described the late Pete Postlethwaite as the best actor in the world. I don’t know how true that is, though certainly his ability to become a character – rather than be an actor playing a character – defined his career. Perhaps such a talent worked against him for some years. I first wowed over Postlethwaite’s work in Jim Sheridan’s In the Name of the Father, but this succeeded nearly two decades of film acting, let alone his many appearances on television and in the theatre. Maybe before his playing of Guiseppe Conlon, he’d simply been too good at blending in to his roles, the result being an appreciation of the piece rather than the actor. In any event, it was only after In the Name of the Father that I realised he’d been in Alien3, The Last of the Mohicans, and so on.
In the Name of the Father is based on Proved Innocent, Gerry Conlon’s account of his confession under torture and subsequent imprisonment as one of the Guildford Four. The film – released in 1993, four years after the Four’s convictions were quashed – is a relatively faithful account of his text, with several minor embellishments and one major change, which concerns his relationship with his father. In reality, Guiseppe and Gerry never shared a cell, neither were the Guildford Four and Maguire Seven tried together, which means communication between father and son would have been minimal at best. Yet this relationship is at the very heart of the film, indeed it’s what gives the story so much substance. Without it, In the Name of the Father might very well have been gripping. Conlon’s tale is too devastating on its own merits. With the insertion of the Guiseppe-Gerry dynamic, it’s a killer.
Postlethwaite worked hard to win the role of the father, eager to play alongside his Bristol Old Vic colleague, Daniel Day-Lewis. Developing an utterly convincing Belfast accent and auditioning in a 1960s suit, just the sort Guiseppe would have worn, he made the part his own despite being only eleven years older than Day-Lewis. The film’s publicity focused heavily on Daniel, who had collaborated with Sheridan previously on My Left Foot. Anecdotes were told about the actor’s method sensibilities; crew members were told to abuse him on the prison set to encourage his feelings of paranoia and aloneness. But it’s Postlethwaite who shines, whether through the chemistry he shared with Day-Lewis or the sympathy he elicited for his performance. Guiseppe was imprisoned for his alleged part in the Guildford bombing after travelling to London to support his son. Eventually dying in prison, it fell upon Gerry to take on the cause of exonerating his dad after his own release. In the film, this follows years of the pair living together in the confined quarters of a prison cell. At first, they irritate each other madly. Gerry resents his father’s early attempts at appealing their sentence, believing it to be futile when what they should do is make the best of their lot. Guiseppe is frustrated by his son dabbling with drugs, mixing with the wrong sort and wasting his life. Over time, they learn to appreciate each other, or at least Gerry comes to terms with the guilt of realising that everything Guiseppe has done was for him. Wrestling with the knowledge initially by rebelling and later by taking over the campaign for freedom, Gerry achieves a sort of grace as the scale of Guiseppe’s sacrifice becomes clear.
In the Name of the Father isn’t easy viewing. To its credit, the film depicts the pre-imprisonment Gerry as a petty criminal and wastrel. He might not deserve his fate, but he certainly doesn’t live up to the standards of a father who watches out for his every step. Once detained for the crime of the bombing and held for seven days (via the Prevention of Terrorism Act), Gerry’s confession is tortured out of him methodically. He only cracks once an officer threatens to shoot Guiseppe, and as the later court scenes demonstrate he didn’t really stand a chance of escaping the kangaroo court mentality of a country wanting blood in exchange for the crime. The majority of the action takes place within Her Majesty’s. The film toys with prison cliches yet thankfully doesn’t overdo them. The stereotyped pseudo-Ronnie Kray kingpin may be present and correct, but the wardens and officers are portrayed as men just doing a job rather than sadists. Gerry turns to drugs when the token West Indians on his wing have a world map jigsaw in which the pieces have been coated in acid (’Try some Nepal’). Mostly, prison is boring and endless. Lifers loiter along the corridors, absently kicking bars and slumping against walls.
Day-Lewis is great as the prodigal Gerry, yet Guiseppe is the character one warms to. He’s the perfect father - harsh but forgiving, strict yet eterally patient. When he dies after years of steadily decreasing health, the way his fellow inmates deal with the news is gut-wrenching. He deserves better, but within their limited means the prisoners give him a poignant send-off. Also good, though overshadowed, is Emma Thompson as lawyer Gareth Peirce. Thompson was at the top of her considerable game in 1993, and gets one of the best scenes in the film as a clerical error hands her the key to exonerating the Four, but it isn’t really about her. Writing for The Guardian, Peter Bradshaw argues that Postlethwaite’s tortured performance and doomed nobility was a key factor in the road to the Good Friday agreement. It seems a far-fetched supposition, though if any bit of acting could prove so influential then this is as good as any.
Postlethwaite became a star in the wake of In the Name of the Father, the go-to man for any casting directors seeking an actor with that ‘lived in’ look, someone who’s seen it all and tasted the varied pleasures and pains of existence. A standout for me was Brassed Off, the tale of a colliery band with little colliery to speak of and Postlethwaite bringing to bear all the pain of trying to hang on to the dregs of his pride whilst his world collapses around him. Elsewhere, he popped up in some of the biggest screen offerings. For Spielberg, he appeared twice in one year. One role was in the overblown Amistad. The other was in the underrated The Lost World, in which he strikes a chord as the hunter of the biggest game imaginable, but who senses the unsavoury end of his boss’s mission and knows exactly when to bow out. He even turned up recently in Inception, playing a dying man with (too much?) authenticity. Not a bad career for the sort of actor who at one point seemed to be damned as, oh you know, him from A Private Function, or, come to think of it, I’m sure he was in Crown Court once…