When The Sky Falls

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

When The Sky Falls

6

IRE/UK 2000

director – John MacKenzie
script – Michael Sheridan, Ronan Gallagher, Colum McCann
cinematographer – Seamus Deasy
stars – Joan Allen, Patrick Bergin
105 minutes

Can When The Sky Falls really be Joan Allen’s first proper leading role in a feature-length movie? She’s been married on screen to Anthony Hopkins (Nixon), Daniel Day-Lewis (The Crucible), Kevin Kline (The Ice Storm) and William H Macy (Pleasantville), generating Oscar buzz in all four films and picking up Supporting Actress nominations for the first two. And that isn’t even mentioning the biggest hit of her career, playing the wife of Travolta/Cage inFace/Off, a movie which I suspect many people have forgot she was even in. Of all five spouse roles, only The Ice Storm was substantial enough to be possibly considered a lead, and even then I’d argue that the leading female part in the film’s ensemble is Christina Ricci’s.

There can be no doubt about the scale of Allen’s role in When The Sky Falls, however. As Sinead Hamilton, a character directly based upon the real-life Dublin journalist Veronica Guerin, Allen is barely ever off screen. Just as, watching Erin Brockovich, you realised you were witnessing an star’s Oscar showcase as much as a movie, When The Sky Falls is another example of the kind of high-toned vehicle mature actresses around the world must lie awake at night hoping will come their way. There are broad similarities between the two films – both are true stories about working mothers who find it hard to balance their professional ambitions with the responsibilities of home life, leading to friction with their relatively passive male partners. That said, although Allen deserves her third Oscar nod just as much as Roberts, she’s much more dependent on the critical and financial reactions to her much lower-profile, much lower-budget movie.

Where Brockovich was sunnily upbeat, this is a sombre, solemn, mature piece of work, doing full justice to the gravity of its source material – Guerin was murdered by gangsters after she’d built her reputation on exposing their drugs trade in the Irish republic. The intentions behind the film are admirable, and the script is a model of adult clarity, with no sense that events are being simplified or blanded out for a cinematic audience. Allen, whose unobtrusive Irish accent sounds fine to my inexpert English ears, carries the film with an unfussy straight-arrow fortitude, building a convincingly complex character with a refreshing absence of the short-cut mannerisms many lesser performers might have been tempted to veer into.

But while all these aspects combine to make the film engrossing and rewarding – after a slowish start it really does build in power – they can’t negate the fact that When The Sky Falls is really more suited to the small screen than the large – it would perhaps be best shown in a 9 o’clock slot on Channel 4, spread over a couple of evenings. It was mainly funded by Sky TV’s movie division – which, incidentally, makes that odd, ethereal title (a quotation from the motto of the Dublin police) seem an even stranger choice. John MacKenzie is more concerned with doing justice to the script and characters than in crafting a cinematic piece of work, one which tells its story with pictures and music as much as with words. As it is, he does a solid, professional job – and that’s fair enough, up to a point. Knowing the accuracy of the film’s depiction of Guerin’s story adds a definite layer of emotional poignancy to the film. But it should also be able to stand alone, and function as a movie on its own merits. And, by this though criterion, When The Sky Falls doesn’t quite come up to scratch.