A feckless young man growing up in war-torn Belfast, Martin McGartland (Jim Sturgess, right) is recruited by the Special Branch as a ‘tout’, or informer. When Martin infiltrates the IRA, he finds himself in a position to save lives by telling his handler, ‘Fergus’ (Ben Kingsley), details of planned operations. Based on Martin McGartland’s true story, Kari Skogland’s movie is a terrific thriller. The history and politics are painted with broad strokes (the final credits, for example, blandly inform us that the British army has left Northern Ireland), but a knowledge of ‘the Troubles’ isn’t actually necessary to enjoy this – it works just as well as a gritty, violent tale of paranoia, double-cross and sell-out akin to ‘Goodfellas’, for example. The character of McGartland is a hard sell, given that he is perceived as a traitor to his own people, although here he’s pitched as a hero who saves the lives of the fifty men of the title, who would today be dead were it not for his activities. A strong script helps the movie’s cause, and Sturgess is compelling in the main role, believable as a hard-nosed undercover operative, and also as a loving family man. The context is excellently evoked too. Skogland gets under the skin of Belfast’s mean streets, capturing not only the period detail of the place and time, but also the sense of oppression and intimidation generated by British army soldiers and the RUC, which is mirrored by the summary justice of the IRA’s ‘community policing’, all of which feeds into Martin’s complex motivation for doing what he does. Kingsley gives Sturgess strong support, as does Natalie Press as his girlfriend, Lara, and Kevin Zegers as his ideologue friend and IRA operative, Sean. A challenging, thoughtful piece, it’s not for the faint-hearted. ****
Elsewhere, Martin McGartland disowns the movie in the Sunday Times.
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.