Just as the Good Friday Agreement celebrates its 20th Anniversary this year so too does one of the most important Troubles-related films. Spring 1998 saw the release of Resurrection Man, a film directed by Marc Evans, written by Eoin McNamee and based on his novel of the same name.
The portrayal of loyalism and extreme violence caused Resurrection Man to receive a significant amount of criticism upon its release. The film provoked protest in Northern Ireland and caused some British critics to walk out of previews. In fact, even a spokesperson for Sinn Féin joined members of political parties with loyalist paramilitary connections such as the UDP and the PUP in denouncing the film’s representation of the loyalist community as being irresponsible.
The film takes inspiration from the exploits of the sadistic Shankill Butchers. The main character, Victor Kelly (played by Stuart Townsend), is based on the real life leader of the gang, Lenny Murphy. Borrowing from the gangster and vampire film genres, specifically The Public Enemy (a 1931 film starring James Cagney) that a young Victor watches at the beginning of the film and quotes at several times throughout, Resurrection Man is a postmodern take on the typical Troubles-related film.
Evans’ film was perhaps unlucky to have come out at a time when a drive towards a lasting peace found invigoration and when the appetite for screen depictions of vengeful Troubles-related bloodletting was in small supply. However, the film’s depiction of loyalism does seem at times to be particularly bellicose. One scene in particular does appear to implicate the wider loyalist community in the Shankill Butchers’ sadism when a random Catholic is picked off the street by the gang and paraded around the local pub for patrons to take turns punching until Kelly puts him out of his misery by slitting his throat in the pub’s toilet.
The film (and to a lesser extent Thaddeus O’Sullivan’s 1995 film Nothing Personal which is also inspired by the Shankill Butchers) started a debate as to why there appears to be a cinematic deficit in films about the Troubles in regards to the loyalist community being represented unfavorably and featuring with much less frequency than their republican counterparts. Certainly, no film exists that portrays republicanism in a similar light.
Twenty years on, this imbalance shows no sign of abating. Stephen Burke’s film, Maze, about the 1983 mass breakout of 38 republican prisoners from the high security Maze prison went on general release in September 2017. Another film about the same event, H-Block, to be directed by Jim Sheridan – director of the Oscar winning, In The Name Of The Father – was postponed but producers are confident they will start filming later in 2018. Acclaimed documentary maker, Alex Gibney’s film No Stone Unturned also received criticism from unionism for the decision to investigate an atrocity committed by loyalist paramilitaries over other historic crimes, such as those committed by republican paramilitaries.
That’s not to say there have been no films about loyalists – but if you have seen Resurrection Man or one or another of 4 Days in July, Nothing Personal, or T2: Trainspotting you are unlikely to come away romanced by the loyalist cause. Other films such as Five Minutes of Heaven and ‘71 offer a more empathetic portrayal of loyalist characters. Ultimately, however, these films still show the loyalist cause to be flawed, unjust and lacking in the credibility often afforded to republicanism.
However if you are a fan of gangster films or share in the belief that social harmony and peace in Northern Ireland is not the responsibility of filmmakers, Resurrection Man is an interesting, provocative and daring film that is worth revisiting.
A special 20th Anniversary screening of Resurrection Man that includes a conversation with novelist and screenwriter Eoin McNamee will take place in the Strand Arts Centre on the 15th March at 8.30pm as part of the Imagine Festival of Ideas and Politics.