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 earlier.
Bennett’s 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 D’Arcy), rushes into the storming of Dublin’s main post office. Young, idealistic, and well-to-do, he throws himself wholeheartedly into the chaos and turbulence of the uprising against the British. He risks sniper fire while he carries messages from the post office to another rebel outpost, the College of Surgeons. It is on the roof of this college that Ernie first encounters the plucky, courageous, charming, and heavily-armed Ita Feeney (Paloma Baeza).
The idealism and violence of the Irish struggle for independence was also covered in Neil Jordan’s 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. Ernie’s 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.
It’s after Ernie’s release from jail that Rebel Heart starts to falter. The secondary characters become either one-dimensional stereotypes (Ernie’s neurasthenic mother, concerned aunt, bourgeois father) or such obvious plot-advancing devices that they’re not even fleshed-out enough to be stereotypes. The exception is Ernie’s visit to Belfast (and Ita), which culminates in the murders of Ita’s father and her brothers. The scene is well-acted and shocking, and resonates throughout the movie.
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 hero’s girlfriend – as though they weren’t horrible enough on their own. Later, Bennett’s 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 Ernie’s 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 Coyle’s acting nor his dialogue compares well to Liam Neeson’s turn as Collins in the Neil Jordan film.
Rebel Heart’s 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 Ireland eroded an entire nation’s spirit. But even if it’s intentional, the effect is more entropic than artistically interesting. The penultimate scene is somewhere between a very bad joke and very bad plotting.
There was some controversy over this film, although that didn’t seem to help its ratings when it was broadcast in the UK. One Northern Ireland politician, David Trimble, criticized the BBC’s choice of writers, complaining that Ronan Bennett’s work was “hopelessly one-sided.” Trimble, in his turn, received a public scolding for complaining about the film before actually viewing it.
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.
– Nicole Williams