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Fifty Dead Men Walking review

Based on the life of IRA informer Martin McGartland (here played by Jim Sturgess), this earnest effort wants to be a Belfast Donnie Brasco, but doesn’t quite brew the alchemy that turned Brasco’s book into movie gold.

A cocky Catholic lad with no prospects, McGartland peddles knock-off goods in ’80s Northern Ireland. It’s a wretched wasteland of cracked concrete and burnt-out cars, where the brutalities of the British Army and brick-flinging street violence are constant threats.

Ever the opportunist, McGartland joins the IRA as a ‘tout’ (snitch) selling secrets to Ben Kingsley’s copper. Galvanised by Canadian director Kari Skogland’s verve and a lively indigenous soundtrack, the early scenes provide an excellent précis of the period. But as the Departed-style plot struggles to absorb the full detail of McGartland’s book, the film threatens to drift out of Skogland’s control.

Luckily, the likeable Sturgess keeps things on track, energetically embodying McGartland’s self-made moral dilemmas. Some of his co-stars aren’t so lucky – Kingsley in particular, who has only a comedy toupée and some hair-raising platitudes to work with. “It’s harder to live for your country than to die for it,” he growls.

Equally bemusing is McGartland’s relatively smooth ascent through the IRA’s ranks – not to mention how he’s able to pull one of the organisation’s higher-ups (the incongruously glam Rose McGowan) with just his sly wit and ratty ’tache.

Skogland precariously treads the line between duty to her subject and the need to entertain, but what emerges is a serious, atmospheric and absorbing look at a topic that, as recent history has shown, continues to warrant debate.

Rob James

A well-meaning and inadvertently timely attempt to tackle the Troubles, whose thriller-toned accessibility occasionally trips over cine-clichés. Meanwhile, a confident, complex Sturgess makes his strongest impression yet. Total Film is happy to clarify that Martin McGartland and Nicholas Davies are the joint authors of the book "Fifty Dead Men Walking".  The screenplay to the film is inspired by the book, although many aspects and characters have been changed. The screenplay was not written or approved by Martin McGartland or Nicholas Davies and is not a reproduction or adaptation of the book or any substantial part of it.

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