On October 19, 1989, Lord Lane, the Lord Chief Justice of Great Britain, sent huge shock waves reverberating through the British legal system when he pronounced the convictions of the Guildford Four “unsafe and unsatisfactory,” and ordered their immediate release from prison. (NOTE 1)
The “Guildford Four” – Gerry Conlon, Carole Richardson, Paul Hill and Paddy Armstrong – were wrongly convicted of bombing two pubs in the town of Guildford, England, on October 5, 1974. These bombings, which took the lives of seven innocent victims, were alleged to be part of an ongoing Irish Republican Army (IRA) campaign of terror that year. The convictions of the Guildford Four, it was later proved, were based on forced confessions, perjured testimony, and – at best – extremely scanty and questionable forensic evidence.
In 1989, Conlon, Richardson, Hill, and Armstrong were each in the sixteenth year of prison sentences ranging from 30 years to life for their alleged “crimes.” Conlon’s father – Giuseppe Conlon – and several other members of the extended Conlon family – were also wrongly convicted of conspiracy in the Guildford pub bombings. All served lesser sentences than the Guildford Four, save Giuseppe Conlon. He died in prison in 1980.
In the Name of the Father is a brilliant and controversial movie which examines in some detail the case of the Guildford Four, and especially the case of Gerry and Giuseppe Conlon. This film stars Daniel Day-Lewis in one of his finest roles ever, as Gerry Conlon; and Pete Postlethwaite in his Academy Award nominated performance, as Giuseppe Conlon.
In 1974, Gerry Conlon is a wildly irrepressible youth living in Belfast, Northern Ireland. He’s unemployed, a petty thief, and always in trouble with the British police and the IRA. In an effort to save Gerry from being killed by either of these forces, Giuseppe sends his son to live with a relative in London.
On the ferry ride from Ireland to England, Gerry meets up with an old friend, Paul Hill. Hill is another Irish youth at interminable loose ends, a young man always in trouble with someone. Together, the two youths travel to London and crash at a local hippie commune run by Paddy Armstrong. Carole Richardson is one of the girls living at the commune.
Gerry and Paul stay with the hippies for a few weeks, but leave after a dispute with another commune member. On the night of their departure – October 5, 1974 – they end up sleeping on a park bench, wandering through London’s streets, and burglarizing a prostitute’s apartment.
Meanwhile, thirty miles away in Guildford, two pubs blow up without warning, and seven innocent people are killed. Gerry and Paul are betrayed to the police by the hippie they had argued with. Both are arrested, along with Gerry’s father, aunt, and cousins, under the provisions of the newly enacted Prevention of Terrorism Act. Gerry, Paul, Carole and Paddy are held incommunicado by the police for days. All four deny the charges levied against them. They are repeatedly threatened, coerced, and physically and mentally tortured by their interrogators. Paul Hill finally “confesses” after a police officer puts a gun into his mouth and threatens to shoot him. Gerry Conlon’s confession comes only after a policeman threatens to shoot his father.
The Guildford Four – as Conlon, Hill, Richardson, and Armstrong come to be known – are quickly convicted, along with their other family members, based on the perjured testimony of the case’s chief investigator, Inspector Robert Dixon. All are given the severest prison sentences allowed by law.
Gerry and Giuseppe end up serving their sentences together at a Victorian-era maximum security prison, one of the harshest in Britain. Much of the central hour of the film examines with poignancy the relationship between the gentle, religious Giuseppe, and the headstrong, rebellious Gerry. There are wonderful scenes here, where Gerry and Giuseppe bridge years of hostility and alienation by recalling their relationship when Gerry was a child. As the frail Giuseppe’s health declines, Gerry comes to value him more and more, and their relationship becomes more tender and forgiving.
Enter at this point Gareth Peirce (played by Emma Thompson), a British human rights lawyer who first meets the Conlons during a tour to check on conditions inside British prisons. She takes an active interest in their ongoing efforts to prove their innocence, and becomes their advocate. After months of investigating the Guildford Four case, Peirce gathers enough legal ammunition to seek to have their convictions overturned…
…How she does this is shown in an incredibly dramatic and moving courtroom scene, a scene which forms the climactic event of this superb film.
In the Name of the Father is a brilliant film on all levels. Daniel Day-Lewis turns in a tough, gritty, and realistic performance as the irrepressible Gerry Conlon – perhaps one of Day-Lewis’ least known, but best movie performances ever. Pete Postlethwaite is magnificent as the gentle Giuseppe Conlon, who is the film’s ultimate victim. And Emma Thompson rises to her usual level of brilliant acting as the tough-minded but emotional lawyer, Gareth Peirce.
What impresses me even more than the dazzling performances of all the actors is how effectively Jim Sheridan’s directing captures the look and feel of this particular era in Britain. Having lived in, traveled widely throughout the British Isles during most of the 1980s and 1990s, I saw firsthand many dreary lower middle-class neighborhoods, so strikingly similar to those reproduced in the film’s early scenes. The antiquated, dilapidated, and oppressive prisons are also recreated with stunning accuracy.
But even more impressive than the accurate reproduction of the sets is how well the film captures the mood of the times. One can almost feel the palpable tension brought on by the continuing violence of the IRA throughout the British Isles, and the British government’s heavy-handed and oppressive means of countering that violence.
The British government’s disregard for civil liberties is, in my view, a central theme of In the Name of the Father. The story of the Guildford Four is not an isolated case of a miscarriage of British justice. Only two days after the pubs in Guildford were bombed, (perhaps in response to the bombings?) Parliament passed the Prevention of Terrorism Act. This controversial and (by American Constitutional standards) oppressive law, aimed directly at the IRA, in effect suspended the civil rights of anyone suspected of conspiring to commit, or committing an act of terrorism. The British police used the Prevention of Terrorism Act as its justification for the arrest of the Guildford Four; this law may have led the police to employ the acts of intimidation and torture that were depicted in the film.
In the aftermath of the Guildford Four’s exoneration in 1989, several other legal cases were re-opened, and in nearly all of them, convictions were overturned because the police either suppressed or manufactured evidence and engaged in threatening or violent behavior toward criminal suspects. In 1993, the British government was forced by public opinion to establish a “criminal cases review commission” to investigate what appeared to be a growing number of cases of miscarriage of justice in the British legal system. In 2005, British Prime Minister Tony Blair apologized on behalf of the British government to the Guildford Four and the Maguire Seven, saying: “I am very sorry that they were subject to such an ordeal and injustice… they deserve to be completely and publicly exonerated.” (NOTE 2)
In the Name of the Father does not pretend at any point to be an objective examination of the Guildford Four case. It is a strong advocate for the innocence of the people involved, and an unsparing critic of the British legal and penal systems. Some of the points made in the film border on the hyperbolic – for example, the interjection of the fictional IRA terrorist “Joe McAndrew,” to press home the point that the British government knew of the Guildford Four’s innocence, but, fearing a loss of confidence by the British public, chose to ignore evidence which exonerated them. Still, the film does not suffer any loss of credibility by so blatantly taking sides in such a politically and emotionally charged issue.
In the Name of the Father is one of those rare films which does three things very well. First: it entertains. This is a dramatic and exciting story, replete with wonderfully realistic characters that are easy to understand and relate to.
Second: In the Name of the Father educates. Very seldom have I learned more about a particular time or set of circumstances than I have from this film. (I must note at this point that I was living in England in 1989 when this case came to a head. I followed news accounts of it with great interest.)
Third: : In the Name of the Father persuades. It is both a scathing criticism of a legal and penal system gone awry, and an apt description of what can happen when a democratic system becomes afraid of its own people. At the same time, it’s a wonderfully inspiring testimony to the ultimate strength of the human spirit in times when all seems nearly lost.
NOTES 1 AND 2: “Guildford Four: 10 Years On, An Injustice that Still Reverberates,” By David Pallister. This article appeared in the British newspaper, The Guardian, on October 19, 1999, the tenth anniversary of the Guildford Four’s release from prison.
Wikipedia Article: The Guildford Four and Maguire Seven
Guardian UK Editorial: “My Ordeal Goes On” by Gerry Conlon