10 great films about the Troubles

As Yann Demange’s acclaimed debut, ’71, gets its UK premiere at the London Film Festival ahead of a nationwide release, we look at some of the best films about Northern Ireland’s Troubles.

Alex Davidson
Updated:

’71 (2014)

’71 (2014)

Following two sell-out screenings at the London Film Festival, ’71 will be released in cinemas across the UK on Friday 10 October. It’s a tense thriller in which the viewer experiences the inferno of bomb-torn Belfast in 1971, as a young British squaddie (Jack O’Connell) gets caught behind enemy lines after being separated from his unit and must escape the provisional militia while determining which loyalist allies he can trust. It is screening as part of the First Feature Competition strand at the Festival.

It’s the latest in a long legacy of films about the Troubles, the euphemistic term for the political conflict that plagued Northern Ireland, Ireland, Britain and Europe for decades from the late 1960s. Troubles films of the late 60s and 70s tended to be documentaries, such as A Place Called Ardoyne (1973), in which members of a working-class Catholic community were interviewed about their experiences. Marcel Ophüls may have won an Oscar for The Sorrow and the Pity (1969), about the Vichy government’s collaboration with Nazi Germany, but his documentary on the Troubles, A Sense of Loss (1972), was flawed, and naive in its seemingly approving stance towards the IRA.

By the 1980s, the Troubles were best represented on the small screen rather than in cinemas. Harry’s Game (1982) was a popular thriller which gave us Clannad’s theme song, sung in Irish, used to soundtrack endless newsreel footage of the conflict ever since, while Alan Clarke’s Contact (1985) and Elephant (1989) offered unflinching representations of the violence and its effects. Most controversial of all was the This Week documentary Death on the Rock (1988), which offered compelling evidence that suggested three IRA soldiers killed by the British army in Gibraltar were unarmed when they were shot. Members of the British government were unimpressed, much tabloid furore ensued, and attempts were made to smear the reputation of key eye witnesses.

By the 1990s, Troubles-influenced thrillers were rolled out both in Britain and in Hollywood, and IRA soldiers became staple baddies and antiheroes, with Richard Gere and Brad Pitt offering imaginative Irish accents in The Jackal (1997) and The Devil’s Own (1997) respectively. The success of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and its ilk led to the unintentional glamorisation of violent thugs in films such as Resurrection Man (1998). The role of mothers became more prominent, with Helen Mirren giving a moving performance in Some Mother’s Son (1996) as the desperate parent of a hunger striker, and Julie Walters excelling as the peace campaigner in the underrated Titanic Town (1998).

Since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, films about the Troubles have continued to fascinate directors, either as material for black comedies (An Everlasting Piece, 2000), thrillers (Fifty Dead Men Walking, 2008) or intimate character studies (Five Minutes of Heaven, 2009). The following ten films avoid the clichés of so many films about the conflict to offer fresh, surprising and often controversial perspectives on an era which changed the UK forever.

The films selected focus on the period of the Troubles between 1968 and 1998, rather than the historical context of the conflict. There are many great films about the era from the partition of Ireland and the Irish Civil War in the early 1920s up to the end of the 1960s, which offer plenty of inspiration for a future list.

The Outsider (1979)

Director Tony Luraschi

The Outsider (1980)

The Outsider (1980)

An Irish-American Vietnam vet (Craig Wasson), inspired by his grandfather (Sterling Hayden), joins the rebels to fight for Irish unification, but has no idea of the complexities of the struggle and finds himself targeted by both sides – the cunning IRA fighters send him straight to Belfast, hoping that he will be killed by the British Army to cause international outrage and encourage financial support from sympathisers in the US.

A horrific scene in which a blind pacifist is tortured with the approval of a British officer caused controversy, and the sole, unfortunate example of the film tipping into sensationalism. But the depiction of Belfast as an alien urban battlefield (although most of the city was recreated on the outskirts of Dublin, some scenes shot while driving through Belfast made it into the film) and the refusal to sympathise with either side make for a compelling and disturbing watch. Wasson, gung-ho and idealistic, makes for a gauche hero, perfectly in keeping with his outsider status.

Maeve (1981)

Directors Pat Murphy and John Davies

Maeve (1981)

Maeve (1981)

Pat Murphy’s neglected drama, about a young woman (Mary Jackson) returning to her Belfast home after years in London, is a key feminist work, one that sees the representation of the Troubles – and history itself – from a female perspective. Criticised by her sister (an early appearance from Brid Brennan) for her feminism and subject to the petty sexism of both the Irish and the British soldiers, who leer at her breasts during a stop-and-search, Maeve argues angrily with her republican boyfriend over his obsession with the past, claiming that women get ‘remembered out of existence’.

Unlike many feminist films of the era, Maeve is accessible to a wide audience, with potent imagery, strong and interesting characters and a poetic and poignant representation of memory that would be seen later in the work of Terence Davies. It’s intelligent and provocative – lines such as “men’s relationship to women is just like England’s relationship to Ireland” are likely to divide audiences.

Cal (1984)

Director Pat O’Connor

Cal (1984)

Cal (1984)

Cal opens like a slasher horror film, using a tracking shot of a killer’s point of view as a car drives to the house of a member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary before an unseen gunman shoots him dead. After this sensationalist beginning, the tone mellows, as we follow the life of Cal (John Lynch), a young IRA soldier with no taste for violence – it is revealed that he drove the getaway car used in the murder. Bullied by fellow IRA members and hassled at his home by loyalist gangs, he is a wretched figure. He attempts to atone for his crime by working for the dead man’s widow (Helen Mirren) – and a dangerous affair begins.

Pat O’Connor’s film subtly portrays the terrible effects sectarian violence has on both the victims’ families and the fighters themselves. Mirren won the best actress award at Cannes for her moving performance of a woman coping with grief, anger and new romantic attraction, while the underrated Lynch is excellent in his film debut.

Elephant (1989)

Director Alan Clarke

Elephant (1989)

Elephant (1989)

Alan Clarke’s second TV film about the Troubles, following Contact (1985), is his bleakest and most unrelenting work. It dispassionately depicts 18 killings, with neither motive nor dialogue, to represent the terrible human cost of the Troubles, and forces the viewer to confront the reality of the violence by lingering on the corpse of each victim. Its title is taken from a quote by Irish writer Bernard MacLaverty, who described the Troubles as like having an elephant in the living room, which, though ever-present, you learn to live with.

It had a great influence on Gus van Sant’s 2003 film of the same name, inspired by the Columbine High School massacre, which won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Clarke’s film was produced by Danny Boyle at the start of his film career, and remains one of the most evocative films of the conflict. While news coverage sanitised the violence, and lesser films glamorised it, intentionally or otherwise, this shows the unrelenting circle of violence for what it is: numb, inhuman and pitiless.

The Crying Game (1992)

Director Neil Jordan

The Crying Game (1992)

The Crying Game (1992)

Even if you haven’t seen it, you probably already know of the big ‘twist’ in The Crying Game (although in fact it’s just one of many in the unpredictable narrative). But there are many other reasons to watch Neil Jordan’s Oscar-winning film, about Fergus (Stephen Rea), an IRA soldier whose life changes forever when he kidnaps a British soldier (Forest Whittaker) at a South Armagh funfair. After an intense first third, the story relocates to London and the genre switches from thriller to unlikely romance – until ghosts from Fergus’s past reappear.

Neil Jordan had explored the Troubles before – his film screenwriting debut was Traveller (1981), in which two newlyweds take an uneasy journey through 1980s Ireland, while Angel (1982) also starred Rea, this time as a saxophonist tracking down the loyalist killers of a deaf-mute girl. The Crying Game is the most intriguing of all, offering an inspired take on the themes of masculinity, violence and loyalty synonymous with cinema of the Troubles.

In the Name of the Father (1993)

Director Jim Sheridan

In the Name of the Father (1993)

In the Name of the Father (1993)

Jim Sheridan followed the success of My Left Foot (1989) and The Field (1990) with this searing representation of the arrest, trial and eventual acquittal of the Guildford Four, wrongfully convicted for the 1974 pub bombings in one of the British legal system’s most egregious miscarriages of justice. It’s Sheridan’s angriest film, and boasts excellent performances from Daniel Day-Lewis as Gerry Conlon and Pete Postlethwaite as his father, Giuseppe, who tragically died in prison.

The film isn’t 100% accurate – it considerably overplays the role of lawyer Gareth Peirce (Emma Thompson) in clearing the innocent prisoners’ names – but its ferocious criticism of a grave misjustice make it a great political work, and a deserving winner of the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. Sheridan, Day-Lewis, Postlethwaite, Thompson and the film itself were all nominated for Oscars.

Bloody Sunday (2002)

Director Paul Greengrass

Bloody Sunday (2002)

Bloody Sunday (2002)

The killing of 14 unarmed protesters during a civil rights march through Bogside, Derry, commonly referred to as ‘Bloody Sunday’, is one of Britain’s most shameful episodes of the 20th century. In Paul Greengrass’s film, made for TV but released in cinemas, James Nesbitt (on career-best form) plays Ivan Cooper, the politician who organised the march. It also features a supporting role for Don Mullan, whose damning book Eyewitness Bloody Sunday triggered a new inquiry into the tragedy, following the perceived whitewash of the initial tribunal.

Greengrass’s signature style, with heavy use of handheld cameras, is evident even this early in his career. Two years later he wrote and produced Omagh (2004), a more intimate portrait of another Troubles atrocity – the IRA bomb that killed 29 people in the Northern Irish town. Captain Phillips (2013) may have won more awards, and his two Bourne Identity sequels (2004-7) greater box office revenue, but Bloody Sunday remains Greengrass’s finest work, and, like In the Name of the Father, won the Golden Bear award at Berlin.

Mickybo and Me (2004)

Director Terry Loane

Mickybo and Me (2004)

Mickybo and Me (2004)

Take away a couple moments of pitch black humour and a lot of the swearing and Mickybo and Me would be the perfect family film, about the friendship that develops between a Protestant lad (Niall Wright) and a Catholic boy (John Joe McNeill) in Belfast in 1970. Both become obsessed with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), and dream of escaping to Australia. Tiring of the hostility and bullying of their peers, they run away with a stolen gun, planning to live as outlaws. The recreation of key scenes from the western in humbler, Northern Ireland locations provide some terrific set pieces.

It’s very funny, with a dark sensibility – following a bomb attack, Mickybo discovers an expensive ring on a disembodied finger. Expressing his delight at the discovery of treasure, he discards the ring and pockets the finger. Both Wright and McNeill are excellent as the child leads, while Adrian Dunbar, Julie Walters, Ciarán Hinds and Gina McKee offer excellent support as their parents.

Hunger (2008)

Director Steve McQueen

Hunger (2008)

Hunger (2008)

The feature debut of Steve McQueen (Shame, 12 Years a Slave) is an intense portrait of the last days of Bobby Sands, who died after 66 days of a hunger strike protesting the British government’s refusal to bestow political status on Republican prisoners. The near-wordless depiction of the strike and resulting violence and repression in Long Kesh prison is powerful, while a long and brilliantly acted dialogue sequence between Sands (Michael Fassbender) and a priest (Liam Cunningham) is utterly electrifying. It gives a fair portrayal of the British officers, who are shown dealing with daily threats to their lives and the trauma of their situation.

Hunger launched the career of Fassbender, who has collaborated on all of McQueen’s subsequent movies, while the film won awards at Cannes and Venice, a BAFTA, and was voted the best film of 2008 by Sight & Sound magazine. It is one of the greatest debuts in the history of British cinema.

Good Vibrations (2012)

Directors Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn

Good Vibrations (2013)

Good Vibrations (2013)

Music biopics are often insufferable, packed with clichés, a pretence that every song was a masterpiece and recreating tired male fantasies of cool, drug-fuelled antics with blokey rock bands before everybody burns out. Not so with Good Vibrations, telling the tale of Terri Hooley, founder of the Good Vibrations record shop and label, which kickstarted the success of many prominent punk bands in Troubles-ridden Belfast. The sequence where Hooley first hears The Undertones’ Teenage Kicks, still one of the best pop songs ever written, is wonderful.

The music’s great – fans of the scene should check out the excellent documentary Shellshock Rock (1979), available to watch for free in the BFI Mediatheques – but best of all is Richard Dormer, who gives a warm and winning portrait of the impresario, and effortlessly imitates Hooley’s distinctive Belfast rasp. It’s a rousing and rowdy celebration of punk triumphing in a hostile environment – as Hooley’s bellows to the crowd at the end, “New York has the haircuts, London has the trousers, but Belfast has the reason.”

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