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According to Ronan Bennett, the novelist and screenwriter who wrote Rebel Heart, a terrible thing happened in 1922. A
Belfast District Inspector named John W. Nixon led a group of policemen as they broke into
the home of a Catholic family, the McMahons. All the men in
the house a father, his five sons, ages eleven to twenty-four, and a
twenty-five-year-old boarder were herded into their front parlor, given a moment to
pray, and shot. Owen McMahon, three of his sons, and the boarder died instantly. Another
son died a week later. The eleven-year-old survived, hiding under a couch. This slaughter,
it has been suggested, was in retribution for the murders of two police auxiliaries a day
Bennetts version of the McMahon murders is one of the set pieces in Rebel Heart, a made-for-television drama from the BBC that places a fictitious young man in the center of the Easter Rebellion and the Irish War of Independence. In 1916, Ernie Coyne (James DArcy), rushes into the storming of
The idealism and violence of the Irish struggle for independence was also covered in Neil Jordans 1996 Michael Collins, where the female lead was played without ammunition or explosions of any sort by Julia Roberts. In contrast, the love story in Rebel Heart begins with an interesting reversal: on the barricades, Ita is the savvy player and the romantic innocent in danger is Ernie. She provides covering fire for his dash back to the post office.
These early scenes are some of the best in Rebel Heart lively, crisp and well-shot, featuring a nice mix of historical figures and imagined secondary characters. Vincent Regan and Frank Laverty start off as a pair of cheerfully cynical rebels and their wry delivery is well-matched to the snappy dialogue. But the Irish rebels were completely outgunned and the fighting ends when the republicans surrender to British soldiers. The rebellion leaders are executed. Ernies banker father attempts to secure his release from British custody, but Ernie defies him and goes to jail with other supporters of an Irish republic.
Its after Ernies release from jail that Rebel Heart starts to falter. The secondary characters become either one-dimensional stereotypes (Ernies neurasthenic mother, concerned aunt, bourgeois father) or such obvious plot-advancing devices that theyre not even fleshed-out enough to be stereotypes. The exception is Ernies visit to
Still, why is it necessary for actual ideas and events to be framed as mere background texture for love stories? This is a common conceit of historical drama, of course, but it is exasperating in Rebel Heart. The Feeney murders are projected as all the more horrible because they happened to the heros girlfriend as though they werent horrible enough on their own. Later, Bennetts teleplay shows that the Republican side was also capable of horrific acts: Ernie shoots a slightly threatening officer cold-blooded, awful, but not exactly comparable to murdering more than half a family. Ita, so capable and alive returning sniper fire at the beginning of the series, seems to dwindle into Ernies sidekick as he matures over the six years that follow the doomed uprising at the post office.
Brendan Coyle is more than adequate as Michael Collins and does a workmanlike turn at indicating his struggles to reach an agreement. But neither Coyles acting nor his dialogue compares well to Liam Neesons turn as Collins in the Neil Jordan film.
Rebel Hearts wit and verve disappears as it enters its final half hour. This may even be intentional on the filmmakers part. Perhaps they intended to show how dividing north from south in
There was some controversy over this film, although that didnt seem to help its ratings when it was broadcast in the
A sad and seemingly endless cycle of atrocity and retribution plays out in this well-intentioned but mostly forgettable miniseries. Rebel Heart is a valiant attempt at capturing the chaos and intensity of the Irish struggle for independence, but it ends up just another mildly interesting story about a boy and a girl.