Set in 1980, in Northern Ireland’s capital city, the movie was inspired by true events in the life of Martin McGartland, a young local recruited by a British intelligence agent to be an IRA informant. Sturgess plays McGartland and Ben Kingsley portrays his handler. Although the discovery of McGartland’s work for the British government earned him the reputation of a tout or rat in some circles, he is credited in others with saving many lives by helping to thwart several IRA-planned bombings and shootings. The real McGartland reportedly is still in hiding for fear he will be killed in retribution for his actions.
Sturgess who, at 31, was a toddler when McGartland’s career as an informant was unfolding, said talking to the people of Belfast helped him learn more about this violent period of the region’s history and understand what drove the characters in the film.
“That was the research, really: just to get to Belfast as quick as possible and find out stories from as many points of view [as possible] and just get immersed in that world. I went to Belfast about a month before we even started filming and worked really hard on the Belfast accent and trying to bury myself in the community there,” Sturgess told the Irish Echo recently by phone. “People were very cooperative. Irish people . . . [are] great storytellers, and there were a lot of things we found out, just hanging out in the pubs and speaking to people there.”
The actor added it was essential to film this particular movie on location.
“There was talk of doing it in England somewhere, but it was just so important [to make it in Belfast]” he said. “We filmed in the streets where it took place. A lot of times, local people were just hanging around watching and telling us more stories and getting involved.”
“Belfast was very prominent in allowing me to tell the story that I was able to tell, because they really embraced me and trusted me and wanted me to get it right from their perspective, meaning for them all to come forward and tell me their sides,” Skogland said. “So, I was very grateful for that and very complimented that they trusted me.”
Pressed for his take on Martin and the course he took, Sturgess said he can understand why the man may alternately be perceived as a hero, a traitor and an ordinary man faced with difficult decisions.
“Yeah, I think [he was] all of those [things], depending on which sort of perspective you’re coming from, which is why it was so great,” the actor said. “It was amazing to play someone who could seem, at times, really heroic and then, at times, [consumed by] the guilt of going against his community. From my perspective, I think anyone who saves lives and puts himself on the line like that or steps up to the plate like that is definitely a hero in my eyes. But I know certain areas that he lived in, he was seen as kind of the lowest of the low.”
“For many reasons, I wanted [the film] to be an even keel,” Skogland emphasized. “I didn’t want it to be a political document because the politics of Ireland are not what I am proficient in, nor was it relevant, in my view, to the story I wanted to tell. I needed to have a political context just so we understood the world that he was in, but my feeling was [that] it was about the individual and it had to come back to the moral-ethical place itself. In a way, it is a movie about peace and what it takes to get there.”
The film opens in limited release in the United States Friday and will be available on DVD Sept. 7.