Volume 16 • Issue 21 | October 21 - 27, 2003

FILM



Film on Veronica Guerin fails to live up to its material

By Danielle Stein

Reviewing a film based on a true story presents critics with a challenge separate from and often more difficult than reviewing fiction. One must ask oneself whether the feelings she leaves the theater with come from the actual story, or the movie that has attempted to tell it.

“Veronica Guerin” was, admittedly, a particularly tricky example of this. The bare bones of the story are enough to move and compel; the experience of watching it is thus enjoyable. But whether the movie incarnation does the story justice is a different question altogether.

The tale of an Irish journalist reporting from the trenches of the drug epidemic that plagued Dublin in the 1990s, “Veronica Guerin” is about the perils of seeking truth and – more importantly – its potential impact. In the shadow of the deaths of Danny Pearl and various other journalists since Sept. 11, this is particularly salient ground.

Joel Schumacher, a Hollywood director, was handed a tension-infused story, inherently possessing that golden combination of both hope and despair. The quality of his raw material makes the formula and schmaltz he imposed on it that much more unfortunate. There’s the gratuitously sappy ending, complete with collages of grief, staged marches, and even a recreated parliamentary law signing. (Guerin proposed new laws.)

There are sprinkled bits of formulaic drama throughout, absent of any complexity. Perhaps worst of all is the forced nature of the scene where Veronica, her husband, and child engage in group singing-and-dancing to a pop song.

Cate Blanchett, in the role of Veronica, shows tenacious talent, despite the thin, confused character given her (please note the distinction between Veronica Guerin the person and Veronica Guerin the character).

The biggest impediment to investing in her character is a muddled motive – the movie constantly, and inadvertently, trips over the question of why Veronica Guerin risked her life to confront dangerous drug pushers and crime bosses. An early scene shows her navigating a neighborhood strewn with dirty needles that toddlers use as playthings with disturbing ability to mimic their elders’ use of them. This gruesomeness, we are told several times, is Veronica’s catalyst.

And, yet, throughout the movie Blanchett emanates a competitiveness that implies she is interested merely in the thrill of the chase. She is not fearful or angry when she encounters a bad guy; rather she is coy, as if she is playing a game and intends to outwit her opponents. A Veronica absent the strain of egomania and careerism that often fuels journalistic pursuits would have rung false. But here, this strain is too dominant, and unintentionally so. Another film may have used this as a subversive criticism of Guerin or journalists in general, but one can be sure that in this case, it is merely a flaw in what is otherwise an uncomplicated attempt to glorify Guerin.

Blanchett was at her best in the few instances where she was permitted to display pain or fear – her panicked whimpers after being physically attacked will quicken your pulse. Also, in one scene, as she breathlessly hovers over a toilet, the fear she feels for herself and her family is palpable. Blanchett’s adeptness at portraying vulnerability rendered her flippant pluckiness throughout the rest of the film that much more annoying. Are we really to believe that Guerin never showed fear during her reporting? That after months of immersing herself in this underground world, she was only ever visibly upset or afraid after she was pummeled by a drug kingpin, but never as she approached his doorstep, alone and unarmed?

If only Veronica Guerin had kept a diary during the two years of her life portrayed on screen. Perhaps then we would be privy to more than just the superficial, simplistic exterior of her story. That exterior happens to be intriguing enough to sustain an audience, but they will be cheated out of really getting to know the woman going through the motions onscreen. Similarly, we meet only cardboard cutouts of her family – the perfect son and the perfect husband, whose rightful concern for his family’s safety brings him to anger perhaps once, and only fleeting anger at that (as he is quickly coaxed out of it by the aforementioned lamentable song-and-dance routine).

Surprisingly, though, portrayal of the underworld Veronica explores is not as sugarcoated. The graphic violence shocks, rather than numbs – a rare phenomenon lately. And impressive camerawork in certain scenes – particularly those that take place in Veronica’s home – induces real anxiety.

The movie ends by declaring the impact of Guerin’s work, which is tremendous. This story undoubtedly deserved telling. But such a canned production should feel fortunate to have such a tremendous basis. It will half-satisfy audiences everywhere.


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