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Idealism is outgunned by reality in Irish drama 'Rebel Heart'
By MELANIE McFARLAND / SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER
Published 9:00 pm, Friday, March 14, 2003
Ernie Coyle (James D'Arcy, left) and Ita Feeney (Paloma Baeza) come of age during the tumultuous years of 1916-1922 Ireland. Photo: BBC America
Food for thought: If a group declared war on your country, bombing public places and in the name of its ideals, would you make a balanced, sympathetic film about it?
The BBC did. For that alone, the British network deserves credit for making "Rebel Heart," airing here on cable's BBC America on Sunday and Monday at 9 p.m. The movie even depicts a murder squad committing an atrocity on a sleeping family in the name of queen and country -- a brutal scene that makes you understand how even a privileged naif was moved to take up arms.
The four-hour drama sweeps through Ireland's early 20th-century fight for independence, beginning with the doomed Easter Rebellion in 1916 and ending with the seeds of civil war sparked by the Anglo-Irish treaty in 1921, which freed only 26 of Ireland's 32 counties from British rule. Repercussions from this period remain to this day, in the form of a free nation still divided by old wounds.
In "Rebel Heart," those who fought for Ireland's independence come off as both brazen and foolish, determined to fight though the struggle's folly is plain to see. That we are led through the movie by upper-class college boy Ernie Coyne (James D'Arcy) reveals a whiff of British class-consciousness. But then, his social position makes empathy all the simpler.
Straight-backed, proper and uniformed in a three-piece suit and tie as the bullets whiz by him, Ernie obviously never thought he had to fight, just as most of us don't imagine we ever will. His good manners and lofty ideals win him the affections of the sharp-shooting Ita Feeney (Paloma Baeza), as his working-class companions Albert Kelly (Frank Laverty) and Tom O'Toole (Vincent Regan) scoff at his posh upbringing. Soon Ernie grows from a privileged softy into a hard, strategic leader who robs a platoon of armed soldiers with little more than his bare hands. When his father commands him to finish college, he growls in reply, "I graduated in the prison camp. With honors."
Precisely when Ernie's moral compass finds its direction, the revolution's objective become more muddled. And as you may guess, "Rebel Heart" does not end on an uplifting note.
Not all of "Rebel Heart" goes down easily and, actually, it's a struggle to keep your attention through the first hour. By the second installment, "Rebel Heart" finds its stride, with the strong cast smoothing the way. D'Arcy's portrayal of Coyne's evolution from wide-eyed innocent to hardened fighter stands out, particularly when paired with Baeza, who softens Ita's iron will with a playful sex appeal.
"Rebel Heart" doesn't attempt to faithfully re-create this history. Most of the characters are fictional although several notable figures, such as James Connolly (Bill Paterson) and Michael Collins (Brendan Coyle), appear. Instead, it's a neat drama about how idealism is often outgunned by reality, to the detriment of greater aspirations.
That's why the outcome of revolutions are often as messy as the battles themselves -- noble as intentions may be, a war's aftermath rarely brings precisely the end its fighters were seeking.