Before you crack your wallet for Veronica Guerin, you’d be well off to rent on video the 2000 release When the Sky Falls (working titles: When Heaven Falls and, natch, Veronica Guerin), of which this new Veronica Guerin is basically a tarted-up remake. Same story, same scenarios, same basic characters, different names. They both even feature a tune belted by Sinéad O’Connor, apparently Ireland’s only female singer (apart from Kate Hudson on tour in About Adam). It’s not that When the Sky Falls is fully superior to Veronica Guerin, but it’s equally important, and the comparison proves intriguing.
In a role that would have gone to Sally Field, Meryl Streep, or Jessica Lange not long ago (and went quite well to Joan Allen only three years ago), Aussie Cate Blanchett helps out poor actress-deprived Ireland by starring as the titular national heroine. In 1994, dismayed at gritty second-unit POV shots of syringes and a broken crack spoon lying in the gutter of a dramatically grim Dublin slum, the feisty suburban wife and mother decides to take on the local drug barons more or less single-handedly. Catching a lead from a teenage junkie prostitute (Laurence Kinlan, sharp and spooky), she follows the stench of Dublin’s heroin trade toward a sensationally violent drug-lord named John Gilligan (Gerard McSorley), who has lost his hair and become very nasty. With him lies Guerin’s destiny, prompting revolutionary changes in Irish culture and law.
It’s a twisty path for the Sunday Independent‘s intrepid new reporter, and the unprecedented nature of her inquiry wreaks havoc for all concerned. Encouraged very generally by her mother Bernadette (Brenda Fricker) and very specifically by her chummy editor Willie (Mark Lambert), Veronica boldly — even smugly — exposes all she can about the local scum. Briefly, this includes gangster Martin Cahill (Gerry O’Brien), recently immortalized in John Boorman’s superb The General. This also includes Guerin’s very ambivalent contact with underworld poseur John Traynor (spot-on Ciaran Hinds), who not only dishes her tips but tends the pseudo-royal court and intricate money-laundering scheme of nobody’s little buddy, Gilligan. Soon enough (say, about forty minutes in) danger comes calling for the increasingly high-profile Veronica, her young son Cathal (Simon O’Driscoll), and her somewhat thick husband Graham (Barry Barnes) who doesn’t quite grasp that when there’s a fresh bullet hole in your front window, you really don’t stand in plain view staring at it.
To be sure, Veronica Guerin is a well-built machine, and judging by its enthusiastic reception in Ireland (where a quarter of the population has seen it), it captures the essence of the real Guerin, whose murder, offered in the film’s opening minutes, literally changed a nation. Blanchett indeed does the character justice. The movie is cut so tightly that it plays like a series of flash cards (perhaps the choice of screenwriters Carol Doyle and Mary Agnes Donoghue, perhaps of editor David Gamble), but throughout her struggles familial, professional, and downright dangerous, Guerin indeed comes across as a fantastic role model.
But let’s leave the toss-off terms like “triumph” and “shattering” and “Oscar-bait” to critics busy paying off their SUVs. From its opening “cute” moments of Guerin beating 1,200 parking tickets, to the requisite cell-phone jabber, to her groovy little dance to — natch, again — U2, this is a very manipulative movie. We’re railroaded into adoring Guerin and her righteousness — into saying “Hey, that’s me!” — right up to the fatal gunshots being fired directly into our faces. While the movie is indeed touching and very politically significant, there’s something peculiar about never learning exactly what made the ace reporter so intensely obsessive about this topic. As there’s not even a molecule of dirt on Saint Veronica, we’re left to guess, which leaves her cinematic martyrdom a bit predictable and unsatisfying.
The same is true of When the Sky Falls — which began development in 1995 with the real Guerin as an adviser — but to a lesser extent. Guerin‘s director Joel Schumacher knows how to work an audience, and his recent, weirdly moralistic Phone Booth was nothing if not a popper (Guerin also happens to feature a cameo from Colin Farrell, in his five hundredth appearance this year). But Sky Falls‘ director John Mackenzie delivers Guerin (renamed Sinéad Hamilton, otherwise identical) with an overall less melodramatic tone — even her torn, bloody stockings are less fetishized. Why his film’s American distribution was effectively snuffed remains a mystery.
Since Veronica Guerin is about drugs, and movies are very potent drugs, it stands to reason: If you’d like to find a fully satisfying score, it is wise to learn as much as possible about your pusher.