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Rebel Heart

Rebel Heart


The New York Times
Review March 14th 2003

Romance and Rebellion in Ireland By LAURA MILLER The most remarkable thing about "Rebel Heart," a handsomely mounted romantic drama set in Ireland from the Easter Rebellion to Michael Collins's acceptance of the Anglo-Irish treaty of 1921, is that it was produced by the BBC. A balanced but generally sympathetic depiction of the Irish struggle for independence from Britain, the film will be broadcast in two parts, beginning Sunday night, on BBC America.

"Rebel Heart" follows the coming of age of a fictional character, Ernie Coyne (James D'Arcy), the scion of a family of wealthy Dublin Roman Catholics with a passionate commitment to the republican cause. He is among the few volunteers who show up to help seize the city's main post office from the British on Easter Monday, 1916.

A pair of older working-class riflemen, O'Toole (Vincent Regan), a Marxist, and the roguish Kelly (Frank Laverty), find untried Ernie's dewy idealism about the battle for freedom fairly amusing. "You already have what you need to be free," O'Toole says. "Money."

Nevertheless, Ernie acquits himself bravely, and in doing so befriends O'Toole and Kelly and meets a saucy, rifle-wielding Belfast girl, Ita Feeney (Paloma Baeza), barricaded in a park with a rebel group. He watches raptly as Ita picks off a British sniper in a third-floor window, glimpsing an inch of her bare thigh as she proposes a near-suicidal hand grenade attack, and he's a goner.

Alas, so is the uprising. Badly outnumbered, the Irish rebels surrender and are imprisoned. Ernie's father secures his release, but Ernie prefers to serve out his term. Although the British execute the uprising's leaders, Ernie and the rest of the captured rebels are released a few months later.

Beanpole-thin, with a pale, delicately handsome face, Mr. D'Arcy ably negotiates the tricky role of Ernie, who nearly trembles with bashful sensitivity one moment and exhibits a doughty resolve the next. When the time comes to kill, Ernie doesn't hesitate. Still, it's a surprise when the Sinn Fein leader Michael Collins (Brendan Coyle), one of the many real-life figures who appear in "Rebel Heart," taps this still-green lad as an important asset in the newly formed Irish Republican Army.

The I.R.A. sends Ernie to Belfast, where he is reunited with Ita, only to lose her again when they are among the few survivors of a police raid on her family's house. The film doesn't flinch from depicting the brutality of British rule in the North, but its approach to the conflict is ambivalent. A rousing scene of rebel courage in the face of daunting odds is likely to be followed by a fleeting shot of the pitifully boyish face of a British soldier lying dead in the street.

Collins sends Ernie to the west to fire up a rural I.R.A. contingent. There, again, the excitement of seeing Ernie rise to the occasion and rally the motley volunteers into a respectable guerrilla force is undercut when he is forced to shoot the amiable local constable. In accord with the film's low-key irony, the man has just asked about life insurance to provide for his "missus" because he's ingenuous enough to have fallen for Ernie's highly unconvincing disguise as a traveling salesman.

"Rebel Heart" is full of such glancing touches of bleakness, a welcome, earthy counterpoint to the grand, old-fashioned love story unfolding between Ernie and Ita. You can spot the conflict destined to tear Ernie up a mile away: his loyalty to the pragmatic Collins, who will consent to the incremental advances of the 1921 treaty rather than continue the bloody war of independence, versus his commitment to Ita and her Northern compatriots, who will be left out in the cold by the deal. There's just enough history here to keep "Rebel Heart" from seeming to use Ireland's troubles as a mere backdrop for romance and adventure.

The film's end, in particular, strikes an unsentimental note. It mirrors a grimly stirring early scene in which two doomed, outgunned, battle-weary men holed up in a Dublin house prepare to face down an attack from a group of soldiers. The familiar but always terrible paradoxes of civil war, in which friends, lovers and relatives find themselves on opposing sides in a bloody conflict, have seldom felt more absurd or more inevitable.


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