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Ronan Bennett penned drama on the Irish War of Independence
Ronan Bennett's four part television drama for the BBC and RTE was already controversial before it reached British and Irish television screens. Ulster Unionist leader and leader of the Northern Ireland power sharing government, David Trimble berated the BBC for making the drama at a sensitive time in the far from steady peace process. He claimed the series would be used as a propaganda for modern day Irish republicans, he attacked Bennett's own political convictions and a number of alterations made to actual historical events in the series.
But setting aside the argument over whether it was wise for David Trimble to attack the series before it was even screened, it has to be said 'Rebel Heart' is a bit of a disappointment. Unusually for Bennett (who penned the Robert Carlyle gangster flic FACE and the excellent pre-IRA ceasefire Maze Prison drama, LOVE LIES BLEEDING) it is an uneven work, painted in broad brush strokes.
Compressing six years of Irish history into four episodes, the drama tells the story of Ernie Coyne (James D'Arcy), a young idealistic middle class Dubliner drawn into the 1916 Easter Rising. During the Rising, he falls for a Belfast republican volunteer Ita Feeney (Paloma Baeza) and falls in with working class Dubliners, Kelly (Frank Laverty) and Tom O'Toole (Vincent Regan). His subsequent imprisonment after the Easter Rising and the disapproval of his family does not deter him from joining Michael Collins' bloody guerilla war against the British. His involvement in the IRA takes him to Belfast and Cork but is also intertwined with his romance with Ita. Along the way, he rubs shoulders with real life Irish historical figures like Collins (Brendan Coyle), Eamon de Valera (Andrew Connolly), Padraig Pearse (Frank MacCusker) and James Connolly (Bill Patterson).
So what's the problem? REBEL HEART starts off like Ken Loach's amazing Spanish Civil War drama LAND AND FREEDOM but never really sustains the momentum. One can't help feeling that four episodes are not really sufficient to do this kind of story justice and Bennett should really have been given two more episodes to flesh out his characters, storyline and properly examine a seminal moment in Irish history. The series is beautifully shot and the acting is committed. Special praise should go to Vincent Regan, Frank Laverty and Frank MacCusker. There is also an all too brief cameo from Liam Cunningham who continues to impress on the small or big screen. James D'Arcy is a suitably stiff lead and Paloma Baeza's feisty west Belfast republican (complete with accent) is spot on.
To Bennett's credit, this no dewy eyed, one sided hymn to Irish republicanism. The 1916 Rising is anything but glorious and there is a brutality to not just the Ulster police's massacres but also to Ernie's violence. REBEL HEART is not without its merits. It's just a pity that with a little bit more time it could have been so, so much better.
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