For a limited showing, The General, directed by John Boorman (Deliverance, Hope and Glory, Excalibur) will find its first Calgary audience. Filled with tensions atypical for a crime movie, The General skilfully manipulates the audience into acceptance, even reverence of the morally lax, but likeably defiant protagonist.
The black-and-white film stars Brendan Gleeson (Mel Gibson's sidekick Hamish in Braveheart) as Martin Cahill, an Irish burglar who, over the course of his life, stole an estimated $60 million worth of goods and sired children to both his wife, Frances (Maria Doyle Kennedy) and her sister (Angeline Ball).
The film begins with Cahill's 1994 Dublin assassination at the hands of the Irish Republican Army then jumps back to his youth as he flees the police on one of his childhood thieving escapades. We soon skip forward to Cahill's adult years as he cleverly exploits every opportunity presenting itself to him.
With legal trickery, he escapes a grand larceny charge. With a cunning plan and a gang of burglars to aid him, he flawlessly pulls a monumental jewellery heist. With cool defiance he kills time in the police station while his mates rob the bank across the street.
All the while, Cahill escalates the level of irritation in the authorities. Inspector Ned Kenny (Jon Voight, reunited with his Deliverance director) heads the team of police pursuing the criminal genius.
Both Gleeson and Voight are exceptional in The General. A look of desperate frustration glazes Inspector Kenny's face as he attempts to persuade Cahill to abandon his criminal ways. Voight admirably captures the tension of a man who admits a fondness for his enemy.
Gleeson's foppish figure instantly inspires affection for Cahill. Whether he is either proudly prancing into situations from which we would expect him to recoil, or hiding his face in moments where we would expect disobedient confidence, Cahill's friendly appearance wonderfully contrasts with his unlawful deeds.
A more provocative contrast, however, is Cahill's ability to inspire appreciation for his wit, and sense of loyalty to his family and companions while carrying out reprehensible actions. In one scene, he nails a suspected traitor in his group to a pool table. Later admitting his mistake, he drives him to the hospital and commends his bravery.
Boorman, who also wrote the screenplay, further draws the audience into Gleeson's character with a tender scene shared by Cahill and his wife. Boorman, who has left Cahill's affairs to innuendo, has Cahill's wife defend the crook. "How many other men don't drink or smoke or hang out with other women?" she asks, while subtly aware of his infidelity.
The tensions and contrasts with the characters are mirrored by the visuals in the film. Heavy lighting contrasts paint Cahill in extreme light and dark tones, emphasizing his two sides. Further, these chiaroscuro shots mimic the style of the painting at which Cahill contentedly gazes after having committed his infamous art theft.
What could have been a commonplace crime story, evolves instead into a compelling character sketch. Any identification with Cahill and his ability to make his own rules must eventually come to an end-the opening moments of The General have already decided his fate. His wit, boldness and charm, however, encourage us to forget Cahill's destiny and instead, to give appreciation and respect to a man who would not ordinarily receive such regard.
The General is playing at the Plaza June 4-10.