1 Hr., 53 Mins.
The Boxer July 17, 2018
In the film, Day-Lewis plays Danny, a reserved 32-year-old just released from prison as the movie opens. It is clear that it will take him some time to recover from the experience. He was sentenced, at the age of 18, for his involvement with the Provisional Irish Republican Army, and, as a result, hardly knows himself outside of his cell.
He unquestionably knows from the get-go, though, that he must avoid reverting back to his former self. This won’t be easy. Despite knowing the dangers it will present, he moves back to his native Belfast, which is still rife with embittered IRA operatives who have a bone to pick with him. (The organization’s omnipresence in the area is on the downturn, however: Belfast’s lead lieutenant, played by Brian Cox, is attending to a truce with the British.)
Two ambitions drive the storyline. One is Danny’s aspiration to restart his once-promising pugilistic career; the other is reigniting a romance with the woman he left behind all those years ago, the sensitive, smart Maggie (Emily Watson). He goes about realizing the first desire by reuniting with his old, jaundiced boxing coach (Ken Stott) and starting a non-sectarian boxing club for boys living in the neighborhood. With Maggie, he is at first cautious: she has since married a now-imprisoned IRA man, and had a son (Ciarán Fitzgerald) with him. When Danny starts meeting with her again, the spark is still there. But both know that restarting their relationship as if nothing
changed is complicated.
One of the things I like best about The Boxer, which I think is an improvement on the overrated In the Name of the Father, is how no action or decision is a good, clear-cut one. Danny can help start a community-servicing boxing club, mending his own fighting career in the process, but that doesn’t mean the IRA who used to be such a key part of his life will put a halt to their (sometimes violent) disdain for him. He and Maggie can tend to their halted love story and make it new again, but what will that mean for Liam, Maggie’s son? And what will it mean to the IRA, who will not be happy to discover that the bride of one of their pivotal members is unfaithful?
Danny continuously puts himself in perilous situations, and that provides The Boxer with a considerable amount of tension. Surprisingly, it is neither the inspirational sports movie nor the heartwarming, sometimes bittersweet, romantic film is so easily could have been. Instead, it is a naturalistic, often doubtful, possible-redemption story that prioritizes its characters over its narrative trappings.
It is most powerful when circling around Danny and Maggie. Day-Lewis and Watson are percipient actors, and know that their on-screen relationship must be more defined by uncertainty than reckless passion. It is obvious that they love each other — their romance was indubitably strong just before Danny’s sentencing — but both are aware that they cannot drop everything and run away. They must be cautious, and really think about whether their reunion’s potential repercussions will be worth it. One-on-one scenes between Day-Lewis and Watson stirringly convey this thorniness; in these moments, the movie is at its most aching and unexpectedly lovely.
Perhaps the triad of fight scenes, which simply watch Day-Lewis partake in sweaty boxing matches, are unnecessary; it has been argued that they undermine the feature’s urgency. I partially agree — they do not add anything vital to the movie — but they also do not detract from the emotional faculty it ultimately exhibits either. This is a romantically melancholy, though sometimes nerve-wracking, drama — an unusual redemption film that is both lined in obvious danger and distinguished by remarkable emotional nuance. If it leaned more heavily into its romantic attributes, though, I’m certain it could have been a masterpiece of its kind. B+
aniel Day-Lewis’ third collaboration with the Irish filmmaker Jim Sheridan, 1997’s The Boxer, feels like something of a spiritual sequel to its forbear, In the Name of the Father. That film, from 1993, was, centrally, about survival. The Boxer, in comparison, is about trying to piece one’s life back together in the aftermath of a traumatic event — and whether a “better life” is achievable or a hopelessly idealistic concept.