Veronica Guerin Review
Veronica Guerin was an investigative journalist for Ireland's best selling newspaper, the Sunday Independent. Like many a reporter for a popular rag, she mostly wrote the sort of fluff the public wanted to read - which, in Ireland, meant church scandals - but she never let go of her ambition to tell important stories and make a difference. In Dublin in the early 90s, heroin use had become an epidemic but a silent one. Children were shooting up in schoolyards and small groups of angry parents marched through the streets, chanting "Dealers out!" yet the problem was not acknowledged by those in power. It couldn't be for fear of embarassment at the inability of the authorities to deal with it. The police didn't have the resources to tackle wealthy organised criminals, in whose favour the law was heavily weighted. The Gardai weren't even allowed to seize the proceeds of their crimes.
It was the smug complacency of the gangs that allowed Guerin (it's pronounced Geer-in) to talk her way inside their circles. Like the famous British gangsters of the sixties, many enjoyed their notoriety. Irish libel laws prevented suspects from being named in the press so Guerin's articles referred to them by cool nicknames like The Monk, which boosted their egos yet more. Some even cultivated their images like celebrities. They'd flaunt their lifestyles to the reporter and feed her scraps to keep her writing about them. They underestimated her. Her articles contrasting the misery of the city's smack addicts with the arrogance of the men who profited from it galvanised public opinion against the gangs and forced the authorities to crack down on them. Worse, she found out far more than she was supposed to, including the identities of the quiet figures at the top, who stood to lose their social status if they were exposed. Guerin soon saw the more vicious side of Dublin's underworld. She and her family were threatened, she was assaulted and even shot in the leg but not only did she remain undeterred, she became something of a folk hero. On June 26th 1996, while stopped at a red light, she was shot repeatedly at point blank range by a gunman on a motorcycle. She was 38 years old and left a husband and a young son.
This is a long way from the type of film you might expect to find director Joel Schumacher and producer Jerry Bruckheimer's names on. Their previous collaboration was last summer's flashy spy comedy Bad Company. Bruckheimer bought the rights to Veronica Guerin's story in the late 90s, forcing the makers of 2000's rival project, When The Sky Falls (starring Joan Allen) to change names and events. Anyone expecting a slick Hollywood biopic may be surprised. Schumacher has made a powerful and honourable film that alters few facts and pulls few punches. It's insightful, shocking, surprisingly funny and inevitably saddening. The only occasionally false notes come from the scenes involving Guerin's family. It's not that they're poorly scripted or performed - they aren't, in fact Cate Blanchett does some of her best work in moments where her bluster crumbles around her loved ones. It's more that these scenes are expected in a biopic of a tragic figure, just like the scenes where Guerin's colleagues fret over the danger she's in. They're there to set up what's coming and they remind us we're watching a movie.
What works well, extremely well, is the recreation of Guerin's crusade and the unflinching portrayal of the Dublin underworld. We're used to seeing drug barons glamourised in movies. Sure, they're the bad guys but they're supercool bad guys with guns, sports cars and hot babes. Al Pacino's Scarface provided a role model for generations of gangster wannabes. To provide standard movie villains in this story would have been unforgivable. Instead, the script by Carol Doyle and Mary Agnes Donoghue depicts them as smaller than life monsters whose evil is a grubby, everyday kind. The movie observes the gulf between their images of themselves and the frank reality. Take John Trainer, aka The Coach, a middleman operating under cover of a string of car dealerships. As played memorably by Ciaran Hinds, The Coach sees himself as a lovable rogue and ladies' man who's only a little crooked. We later find out that he's up to his eyeballs in the smack trade and his girlfriends are addicts screwing him for the money and the drugs. He seems to genuinely like Veronica, which makes his involvement in the attempts on her life even more appalling. Then there's John Gilligan (Gerard McSorley), the millionaire who runs his smuggling operation out of his stables in the country. He thinks his money makes him a gentleman and entitles him to rub shoulders with high society yet he's little more than a street thug in an expensive suit. The most shocking moment in the film is his reaction when Guerin turns up, alone and unannounced at his residence.
(His language also explains Veronica Guerin's 18 certificate. It's time the BBFC got over its squeamishness about the C-word. An inspiring, anti-drugs film shouldn't be forbidden to teenagers because of a word they will be quite familiar with by the age of 15.)
As good as the supporting cast are, it's Cate Blanchett's film and she may well be the best actor working in films today. Look at the way she disappears into the most diverse roles without ever losing her charisma. The stars of Veronica Guerin, Elizabeth, Bandits, Charlotte Gray and The Gift scarcely seem to be the same woman. Guerin is a star part that requires an actress who can hold the screen but there's no room for showboating. A reporter does her job by letting her contacts talk and Blanchett has the confidence to cede scenes to her fellow actors, a rare trait among movie stars. She downplays the histrionics and finds character-revealing moments in throwaway scenes - one where she tries to laugh off being shot in the thigh, to her family and friends' disbelief, another where she one-ups a cocky football fan (a priceless cameo from Colin Farrell). It's a magnificent performance. Schumacher and Bruckheimer also tone down their respective in-your-face styles to good effect. (Actually Schumacher has been making good little films for a while now!) They've made Veronica Guerin a tight and relatively modest drama which allows the story to take centre stage, which affects you without seeming to try too hard and which stays in your head afterwards. It deserves to be seen.