To a degree, the feeling of "romance" in "The General" is a matter of style more than content. Boorman, 65, the writer-director of "Hope and Glory" (1987), has always enjoyed tackling difficult material--often physically difficult, involving arduous months of shooting in the rain forests of Asia (1995's "Beyond Rangoon") or South America (1985's "The Emerald Forest").
The new film, however, photographed in silky wide-screen black-and-white, often with languorous gliding camera moves, is a notably unstrenuous crime movie.
"So many of my films have been made at the absolute extremities of my powers," Boorman said during an interview in Los Angeles. "I used to feel that if I wasn't pushing myself to the very limits, I wasn't doing justice to the material. But 'The General' was made well within my limits. . . . The experience made me think of something David Lean said a few weeks before he died: 'I'm just beginning to get the hang of this.' "
The seductiveness of the filmmaking in "The General" can be a little unsettling, however, considering its often horrific subject matter. Cahill was a disciplined professional criminal, but brutality was one the staple tools of his trade. "From what I could gather," says actor Gleeson, "he wasn't somebody who enjoyed indulging in violence. He was very good at it, though, very good at making people afraid."
There may be another explanation for the romantic aura that the movie conjures around Cahill, despite the filmmakers' efforts to acknowledge his brutality. Gleeson's performance makes such a strong case for Cahill as a human being, even in the face of appalling "physical evidence." The combination of bone-deep authenticity and movie star charisma carries us well beyond mere identification with the character.
"It took me a long time to get rid of him, I'll tell you that," says Gleeson, a sizable but relaxed and articulate man, now in his early 40s. "It took me so long to get at him, too. I had been doing all the reading, listening to all the stories, looking at all this footage, getting all the externals.
"I got as close as I could externally to Martin Cahill, but he was still somebody else, it was mimicry, and John said, 'It's not really coming from inside.' I had to find out what was going on inside."
Boorman adds: "A lot of people have said to me, '[The performance] doesn't look like acting.' Brendan just seems to be that person. A lot of people seem to find that disturbing. . . ."
Reporter Williams, who met Cahill on several occasions, confirms that Gleeson's resemblance to the criminal is "uncanny." Visiting the set one day, the journalist's 9-year-old son spotted the actor in costume and exclaimed, "Da, look, the General is alive!"
There is no discernible trace of aloofness or self-consciousness in Gleeson's performance. He seems to be fully present on the screen as a man. This, even more than the rough physical similarity, may be what the folks back home were thinking when they dubbed Gleeson "the Irish Depardieu."
"I always felt he was more like James Cagney," director Boorman says. "The vitality, the drive. Certainly I thought of 'White Heat' when I was making 'The General.' "
Best known as Mel Gibson's fiercely bearded compatriot Hamish in "Braveheart," Gleeson is rising quickly. Between the time "The General" was shot and its U.S. premiere at the New York Film Festival in September, a prodigious buzz was already building. A pair of Irish indie productions--"I Went Down" (in which he played a jaunty small-time gangster) and "Sweety Barrett" (featured at Los Angeles' recent AFI Film Festival)--had helped spread the word. Gleeson has just finished playing a Yank, in the monster-alligator thriller "Lake Placid," which is scheduled for release in spring.
Gleeson came by his man-of-the-people demeanor the old-fashioned way: by working for it. Although he has been acting off and on since his school days, he also toiled full time as a high school teacher until 1989, and took up acting professionally only in his 30s.
"I got started kind of late," he says, "although I certainly don't regret that I had a normal life before I got into this business. The experience of working 9 to 5, in the expectation that this is going to be your life, that helps me to explore people whose lives are similar. If there's one thing that's been consistent with me, it's a sense of curiosity. I've always been curious about how other people carry on.
"As an artist, that's really the main thing that I have to give, that I can put people in the position to understand the other person's point of view. That doesn't mean to condone it, it just means to not see them as alien creatures."
It was this attitude, as much as anything, that made Gleeson a good fit for the movie Boorman intended to mak, depicting Cahill neither as a monster nor a folk hero but simply as a human being whose life took a lamentable turn.