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UK/Ireland 1998
Directed by
John Boorman
129 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars

General, The (1998)

John Boorman is very much a director’s director, his films being often awarded for their film-making chops but rarely making much of an impression at the box office. The General, which won the 1998 Cannes Film Festival's Direction Award, is one such film.

Shot in colour but printed in crisp back and white it tells the story of Martin Cahill, a real life Irish crime boss, murdered outside his home on August 18, 1994, apparently by an IRA assassin, although it is not explained why. Opening with this event the film then scrolls back to Cahill’s beginnings in the Dublin slum of Hollyfield, briefly showing us a cheeky delinquent (Eamonn Owens) nicking food before shortly thereafter graduating into the adulthood (at which point a slightly too old Brendan Gleeson takes over) and his criminal career proper.

In the central role. Gleeson is outstanding. Presumably his idiosyncratic performance is based on the real Cahill but either way it is a compelling portrait of a man warped by circumstances, evidently intelligent, or at least, endowed with a brute cunning but contemptuous of the law and private property, which in his self-justifying worldview is simply legitmized theft and exploitation of the poor by the rich. Typical of such a character he is at once sentimental, loving his family and his pigeons, and ruthless in responding to any suspicion of disloyalty (in one scene he nails one of his gang to a billiard table in order to extract a confession from him).

Whilst the film is solidly grounded in reality (including really bad Irish lumpenproletariat wardrobe) Boorman has also clearly given the facts a bit of a polish, at times taking an almost comedic perspective on events. Although the Cahill we see is charming enough to set up a mènage a trois with his wife (Maria Doyle Kennedy) and his sister-in-law (Angeline Ball), Cahill is not your standard issue likeable rogue .Fortunately an unlikely, but effective, Jon Voight who plays Cahill’s would-be nemesis, Inspector Ned Kenny, is on hand to make it clear that Cahill was a man who, in simplest terms, couldn’t give a f**k about anything but himself and his own. It was an attitude which enabled criminal acts of remarkable audacity but it is also one that made him a reprehensible and dangerous character to anyone who got in his way.  That Boorman’s film captures the duality of his nature so effectively makes for an impressive character study.




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