Whisky and kneecaps

In this version of the often told story, the IRA waged a secret war that was ugly and not heroic but destructive. It's told from Dublin instead of the North this time.

The film stars Ray Malone as Sean Shannon and Adam Redmond as Francis Shannon, two working class Dublin brothers born the same year but not twins and though close, not alike. Frank is a gentler and more decent man who cares for their father who has dementia. Sean, who's married with a child, is a mean sort who's aggressive and violent, including with his family. This is the story of their involvement from far off Dublin with the IRA whose main activity was in Northern Ireland.

And it's awful, and not pretty, and makes no sense, which is the point. This is the stupid brutal war that really happened to ordinary men. The film neither lionizes nor vilifies them but depicts them as the filmmakers knew them growing up, with the details based on actual accounts. Many will not like this very low budget film because it lacks the frills and glory of so many films on the subject that take sides, depict monsters or heroes, or dramatize grand moral commitments and sophisticated politics. This instead is a world of little understanding and much petty brutality. The truth doesn't thrill: it gives you a sinking feeling.

As Wikipedia will tell you, what is known as The Troubles, from the Irish Na Trioblóidí, was an "ethno-nationalist conflict" chiefly in Northern Ireland that lasted for about 30 years, from the late 1960s until they were settled with The Good Friday or Belfast Agreement of 1998. The moment focused on by this film starts near the middle, in 1981. "Fuck Thatcher" is a placard we see in the first few minutes that's a sign of the times: she was a hateful and provocative figure. This is the year of the much publicized death on May 5 of the IRA martyr Bobby Sands hunger striking in a British prison.

The brothers Sean and Frank hear about the IRA on TV -it's all over the news - and they go to Declan (Wayne Byrne), whom they know to be involved, and ask to join. Declan rebuffs them at first, but soon is giving them orders. And that's the simple way it all starts for them. First they know almost nothing, and the next thing you know they're masked and armed and attempting to rob a post office. There was no preparation. And it does not go well.

The two return from prison some years later. It's 1986 now. The boys have done some reading in jail. Sean has studied business. Frank has worked his way through most of Dostoevsky. Their elderly father has died. When released they're taken first to visit his grave, then to the pub for a series of ritual whiskies. When Sean gets to his house it seems like a graveyard: one gets a sense of how hollow his performance as a husband and father has been. His wife who has been caught up in what she seems to see as the evil, violent system of the IRA, is openly hostile to him now. But looking aside from the shambles of their lives, the two brothers report back to Declan, ready to return to duty.

Sean's family life disintegrates further. Frank dates Rosie (Sophia Adli), a pretty girl from Belfast he meets tending bar. But she's from Belfast and her family on the enemy side. Ultimately it can never work, and its disintegration - it was sweet while it lasted - reveals the tight network of suspicion that everyone is locked into. It feels like a world of informers and dictatorship.

The new job assigned for Frank and Sean with Declan involves getting money from a heroin dealer. It's dirty money but the IRA wants it: the order, Declan tells them, comes from up high. "This isn't us," says Frank. "Morals don't win wars," ripostes Declan. Their meeting with a drug dealer whose cover is dry cleaning is, indeed, gangsterish. Frank acts tough too now. The system has changed simply changed them.

They are assigned to kneecap someone, a frequent punishment. The victim is given a choice which leg. But how do you choose? The scene is grotesque. Sean's unpredictability and violence are liabilities that increasingly seem to blend in, to become almost assets. Frank wants out. He doesn't get out. "It doesn't end" is one of Sean's last lines in the film and indeed that seems to be the case. Everything in the film conveys a sense of being locked into a cruel, senseless world defined by the implacable conflict.

"Lisa," a YouTube video reviewer "Geek Legion of Doom" speaking from a Northern Irish perspective, confirms that The Troubles: a Dublin Story is an unusually accurate, unbiased and unglamorized depiction of this period in Irish history. She explains that Luke Hanlon worked for a long time as a windshield repairman nurturing the dream of making this film to tell the IRA story from the Dublin and ordinary guy point of view, and finally made it on a very small budget without state funds or frills. She thinks the budgetary limitations don't hurt at all. Indeed most of the scenes, the brother's family lives, their interactions with their IRA bosses, their attempted post office robbery, could be executed without much expense. Limitations make the scenes lean and effective, though dialogue may be a bit on the mark sometimes.

At an Irish Film and Television Academy seminar on the film Hanlon explains they have depicted thef world he and his contemporaries knew growing up as one of ordinary men in nine-to-five jobs who "signed up" with "noble intentions," knowing nothing about what they were getting into, and they show in the film how it "just deteriorated into a kind of quasi-gangsterism."

Some scenes don't flow. Some of the Irish dialogue is unintelligible. The film might best be rewatched with someone Irish. The acting however, particularly that of Malone and Redmand, is unmistakably fine. And when it's working this film captures the menace and tension of this world as well as you're ever likely to see. You don't need fancy explosions to convey that confined, paranoid world. In fact such flourishes might have interfered. Here nothing gets in the way of the hostility and the cold sweat.

The Troubles: A Dublin Story, 93 mins., debuted at Indiecork Festival Oct. 4, 2022. Release online in the US Mar. 5, 2024.