A lullaby sung by a mother to her newborn drifts through an embattled
village. Friends toast each other in clandestine meetings. Children play
hide-and-seek among the rubble of deserted buildings. Neighbors in urban
gang territory share backyard gossip. Lovers embrace on moonlit rooftops
in brief respite from the violence below.
Wherever lives are played out under siege - Sarajevo, Beirut, Somalia, South
Central L.A. - moments of joy seem all the more precious.
At such times, life is affirmed.
Danny Flynn and Maggie Hamill know how it feels. They have been drawn to
each other since they were teenagers growing up in Belfast, but because
of where they were born, their lives have been shaped by random danger.
They have seen bullets shatter bedroom windows and bombs rip apart local
pubs, and they are bound by ancient, unquestioning loyalty to the ties of
blood, tribe and tradition. To violate such a code would be to willfully
sacrifice what looks like their people's only hope.
Now, after 14 years in prison, former IRA member Danny is returning to the
neighborhood where Maggie has managed to survive by marrying, and then raising
a son by Danny's best friend. Ill at ease in the outside world, Danny is
imploding with 14 years of silence. Cultural taboos and unwritten rules
militate against Maggie and Danny. Friends, family and IRA members watch
their every move, observing their forbidden glances.
But in the boxing ring, Danny is home. There, the rules provide a structure
that the chaotic streets of Belfast cannot, and therefore offer him a way
to communicate with dignity and, in the process, rebuild his life.
In the midst of turmoil, as Maggie realizes she has never stopped caring
for Danny, they begin to steal brief moments together-exchanging a look,
a word, a touch. In a world where violence is a way of life, the most dangerous
thing they can do is fall in love.
Academy Award® winner Daniel Day-Lewis and Academy Award® nominee
Emily Watson star in Universal Pictures' The Boxer, a poignant love story
from acclaimed filmmaker Jim Sheridan. The film reunites writer-director
Sheridan with Day-Lewis after having successfully teamed on Universal's
In The Name Of The Father, which was nominated for seven Academy Awards®
including Best Picture, Actor and Director, and My Left Foot, for which
Day-Lewis won an Oscar® as Best Actor.
Joining the team once again are In The Name Of The Father co-writer Terry
George, producer Arthur Lappin and editor Gerry Hambling, with two-time
Academy Award® -winner Chris Menges serving as director of photography
and Brian Morris as production designer.
Danny Flynn has just been released from 14 years in prison. Leaving the
relative safety of jail, he returns to Belfast and the discord in the streets.
Maggie has been in a confinement of her own. Her role as the daughter of
an IRA leader has always demanded that she be the model of exemplary behavior,
while Danny's imprisonment forced her to suppress her feelings even further.
When Danny refused to communicate with the outside world, including her,
Maggie resorted to a loveless marriage. Her husband, himself incarcerated,
expected sacrifice-the vow of a prisoner's wife. Her son, Liam, is rushing
to follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather despite his mother's
unspoken fears. Trapped by local intolerance, gossip and suspicion, Maggie
has repeatedly denied her own heart.
When Danny returns to the neighborhood, he is the catalyst for change in
both Maggie's life and the life of his community. As a boxer determined
to restore himself in the ring, he is capable of resurrecting his people's
self-respect. As a man, he can renew his own self-respect and perhaps build
a life with Maggie-one that is not only worth fighting for, but worth living
The Boxer marks the third collaboration between director Jim Sheridan and
actor Daniel Day-Lewis. (Day- Lewis also starred in Sheridan 's In The Name
Of The Father and My Left Foot, winning and Academy Award® for his performance
in the latter film.)
It is a tale that star Emily Watson describes as "strong, gritty, kind
of warts-and-all," explains Emily Watson.
Women factor into The Boxer more prominently than in most films centered
on such a brutal sport. Echoing a theory from Joyce Carol Oats in her book
On Boxing, Sheridan is fascinated with the loyalty Maggie's community of
women express for the underdog, whereas men more readily switch allegiance
to whomever is winning.
"In this film, women characters are not peripheral to the action,"
Sheridan says. "But like the Irish in general, they stand by the victim.
They love when Danny's in the ring and they can say, 'we might beat England
for just one hour.'"
Equally important, women in The Boxer are ruled by the code that exerts
tremendous influence in the oppressed culture of Northern Ireland.
Ireland - the code of the prisoner's wife. "The men inside the prison
feel that if the women aren't loyal to them, the morale of the army would
collapse, so all the women are watched in a kind of self-censorship,"
explains Sheridan. "Their every move is being watched because of the
impact it can have. There is no privacy in this war."
"In many ways, this is a film about the emergence of women in this
society," he adds. It's about love and the feminine coming into the
As a springboard for The Boxer script, writer George referred to Sheridan's
screenplay about the life of Irish World Featherweight Boxing Champion Barry
McGuigan, who later became actor Daniel Day-Lewis' boxing trainer during
filming. But the story evolved into a purely fictional piece and, true to
Sheridan's fluid, spontaneous style of directing, the script continued to
change throughout shooting.
Known for working in close partnership with actors, Sheridan explains his
philosophy: "I essentially think that great acting is also great scriptwriting-but
this isn't as anarchic as it seems. If a story becomes really structured,
I fear it will be too predictable. On the other hand, if an actor has to
fight for the character, then it becomes a mixture of the actor's perceptions
After starring in two other Sheridan films, Day-Lewis is especially attuned
to this approach. "We both went into this willing," he says. "You're
telling a story, but don't really know its outcome. That unleashes a huge
degree of insecurity which is quite useful to us both."
In fact, as creative spontaneity increased on the set of The Boxer, the
film took on more and more of the distinctive feel of a Sheridan effort.
"I see so many films that are planned out ahead of time and never work,"
says Sheridan. "When film gets closer and closer to documentary-closer
to whatever happens and farther away from opera, in which everything is
organized-then it seems to kick in."
Shot on location in Dublin over 16 weeks, The Boxer incorporates urban environments
reminiscent of Belfast, where the story takes place. Some scenes were shot
in a district of old derelict flats similar to bombed-out neighborhoods
in the troubled North. Others took place near Sheridan's childhood haunts:
Maggie's house in the film is next door to the one in which Sheridan was
Also in the interest of realism, the cast researched the harsh personal
side of "The Troubles." Emily Watson visited Belfast with Terry
George's brother, driving through hard-hit areas, talking to residents and
meeting prisoners' wives. The process allowed her to develop a back story
for her character, Maggie.
"Once you've got the structure of the place where your character lives
and the political and social background, then it's an imaginative process,"
explains Watson. "At the beginning of the film, Danny and Maggie haven't
seen each other for 14 years, and they were desperately in love as teenagers.
What you create are all those memories to use as a reference point."
Finally, the actors adopted appropriate physical attributes, ranging from
the moves and physique of a boxer, in Day-Lewis' case, to characteristically
Northern Irish accents. Fourteen-year-old Ciaran Fitzgerald, who portrays
Maggie's son, Liam, shifted easily from his own more southern lilt and learned
boxing footwork as a prerequisite to the choreographed fight he takes part
Last year Day-Lewis, already in training as a boxer for three years, stepped
up his efforts in preparation for filming. For two years prior to filming,
and about six months during production, Day-Lewis was coached by the champion
who originally inspired Sheridan's story, Barry McGuigan.
"Barry is a gentleman of the ring," says Day-Lewis. "What
is deeply moving to me is that he had tremendous respect for the people
he was pitted against, like bullfighters in the past: purity, dignity and
respect between two separate beings."
Yet McGuigan's raw, unfiltered drive to fight showed in the relentless training
he put himself through and in the fact that even after a hard day's work,
it was so much in his blood, the fighting itself, that he was still up for
While McGuigan acknowledges he trained like "a madman," he also
describes Day-Lewis as equally driven. "Daniel and I are alike in that
way," he says. "We both believe that you only get out what you
put in. It's Daniel's nature that he doesn't do anything easily, so he trained
incredibly hard. He actually lived the life of a fighter."
Day-Lewis stayed in fighting form the entire 16 weeks of the shoot, to accommodate
the three matches at the film's beginning, midpoint and end. "It was
grueling to keep such an unnatural level of readiness," Day-Lewis explains,
"because athletes go through peaks and troughs, working toward a level
of fitness where you're razor sharp for the moment itself, then burning
yourself up in the event."
McGuigan reports, however, that Day-Lewis was "the most determined
person I have ever met. He's a chameleon. He molded himself. I've worked
with fighters who haven't trained half as hard. And this guy can truly fight.
I'm a commentator for fights around the U.K. now and I know all the middleweights,
but I can say that he could fight, right now, any of the top ten in the
country. If I'd had him at 19, I would've made a world-class fighter of
The combination of McGuigan's coaching, Sheridan's direction, George's psychologically
insightful script and Day-Lewis' tenacious immersion in his role created
a subtle and quietly potent title character with, in Sheridan's words, "a
silence at the center."
Day-Lewis describes the extreme introversion of Danny's time in prison as
running a close parallel to boxing itself, an activity that does not require
words but weaves an entire secure world all its own. The sport can be comforting
in the way that a prison cell can have something comforting about it after
14 long years, providing a known place with well-defined, simple boundaries
McGuigan refers to the gymnasium as a sanctuary. "When everything else
is going crazy around you, you can punch the bag, spar-get rid of all the
tension in your life and in your head," he says.
"In the ring, Danny's fighting within the rules," explains Sheridan,
"hoping that if he stands up and fights fair it will draw people naturally
to the nobility of the fight. On the other hand, when fighting moves from,
say, war into terrorism, it does so because people have lost the rules and
lost a vision of what they want the future to be. Danny has a positive view
of what can be achieved by staying within the rules."
In a related thematic undercurrent, the film explores the nature and the
limits of human fear.
"Boxing brings fear out into the open in a very clear way," notes
Day-Lewis. "It puts you in an enclosed space where you confront things
that are fearful, face-to-face with someone trying to hurt you. Most fighters
won't really talk about that because so much of it is about dominating the
fear long before they ever reach the fight situation, to such an extent
that the appetite completely eclipses the fear."
"At least with boxing, the enemy is out there-outside yourself,"
adds Sheridan. "Most people are trying to be normal and prove that
they're calm and cool, when, in fact, we're all in terror all the time anyway."
"Boxing forces the fighter to answer his innermost fears and feelings,"
says McGuigan. An example of this is when Danny must choose between winning
the big London fight and pummeling his opponent.
"You must face questions about your courage, your nature," McGuigan
continues. "Ultimately, it's about character. Ninety percent of the
people in boxing are great guys, very ethical and upstanding. The training
and the conditioning of your own mind makes all the difference. It makes
you a better person."
Since boxing is so much about the internal dynamics of the individual, the
bond between trainer and fighter is a particularly close one. "It requires
complete trust," McGuigan explains. "The trainer knows not only
every detail of your moves, but your behavior and innermost thoughts, as
well. There are no secrets between a trainer and a fighter."
The trainer is like a mentor or a teacher, according to Sheridan, which
adds to the enormous audience appeal of Ken Stott's character, Ike Weir.
To portray Ike, Stott spent time with an Irish trainer and some of his charges,
learning the ways of that close relationship. But, as in other films where
boxing has played a major role, the trainer in The Boxer has a personal
flaw. "Whether it's drinking or a physical impairment, Ike Weir is
somebody who represents us because he's not physically up to fighting the
way the boxer is," explains Sheridan. "So we empathize with the
person who's trying to help."
Sheridan calls Day-Lewis' performance "smoldering. You get to know
the private world of him, and you ascribe your own reasons to his actions.
It's not as driven as Daniel's work in, say, In The Name Of The Father."
But if Danny resonates on a powerfully internal level, then the character
of Maggie is like a stifled ember exposed to oxygen.
"She's very strong and she's very weak," says Watson of her character.
"She's been brought up within the political structure of the IRA, her
father is head honcho and she's very much played the role. As the ideal
prisoner's wife, she must behave in an exemplary fashion, but suddenly she
begins to realize that's not what she wants to be or do. She's forced to
choose what she wants, to grow strong, really."
Watson has been described by Sheridan as "very generous and very giving-precisely
the qualities that were needed to complement Daniel's character, who is
very quiet and withdrawn. It was a perfect match and good charisma."
No less a love story than a pugilist's tale, The Boxer has an arguably classical
theme: Danny and Maggie experience a fateful love discountenanced by society,
and from that discord arises drama.
"The funny thing is that once something becomes a love story, it can
lose the drama," says Sheridan. "Drama is conflicting stories
at play and love stories are about the conflict being over."
"There's even something almost mundane about Maggie and Danny's relationship
under any other circumstances. But it becomes absolutely extraordinary in
this kind of cage that they're living in, and the drama in keeping them
apart is what's most interesting," Sheridan adds. "Their contact
is mostly through their eyes and a big part of their relationship is being
comfortable in silence together. In the end, you feel they just have to
be together to survive. So in the middle of this crazy boxing tale and violent
war story, the film is actually very gentle at heart."
In fact, Sheridan seems drawn to exploring fundamentals like love, allegiance
and human dignity in settings as violent as Northern Ireland and the boxing
ring. "When you describe just the physical side of boxing," he
says, "then what's missing is a spiritual dimension-a spiritual quality
that occurs when people have to go through bad experiences and undergo change."
"But the outstanding people, the people who link one era to another,
will always have that quality," concludes Sheridan.