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Her life for a story

In 'Veronica Guerin,' Cate Blanchett is the Irish reporter killed in 1996 by the Dublin drug dealers she covered.

October 12, 2003|Michael Dwyer | Special to The Times

Not for the first time, a Jerry Bruckheimer production is the Irish box-office champion of the year. The movie is not the swashbuckling "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl," ranked seventh and rising, but what the hugely successful producer describes as one of his "small pictures" -- "Veronica Guerin."

Directed by Joel Schumacher, the film stars Cate Blanchett as the title figure, a fiercely determined Irish crime reporter who worked for the Irish national newspaper, the Sunday Independent, and who was murdered by Dublin gangsters in 1996. The film, which opens here Friday, begins with a dramatic re-creation of that fateful event, and an extended flashback charts the eventful last two years in the life of Guerin, who was 36, married and the mother of a 6-year-old son.

International audiences more familiar with the cozy, shamrock-tinged images of Ireland in movies from "The Quiet Man" to "Waking Ned Devine" will be startled by the movie's frank depiction of the unscrupulous Dublin drug dealers Guerin was investigating -- and of their victims, in an arresting early sequence set at a housing project where the street is littered with used syringes.

The screenplay for Schumacher's film -- credited to the U.S.-based Dubliner Carol Doyle and the American screenwriter and director Mary Agnes Donoghue -- portrays Guerin as a brave, driven and unconventional reporter while at the same time somewhat naive and ultimately reckless. She emerges as a character who could not have been invented if she did not exist, someone whose murder triggered urgent, decisive action against the drug barons by the Irish government and its agencies.

The film also notes the cynicism of other journalists toward Guerin and her unorthodox modus operandi as something of a rogue operator. Passing a bar frequented by journalists, she decides not to go in: "I know what they say about me." Later, after a gangster has shot her in the leg, one of the regulars in that same bar jokes that she might helpfully use the insurance money to take a course in journalism.

Although made on a relatively low budget in the region of $17 million -- a fraction of the cost of such Bruckheimer blockbusters as "Pearl Harbor," "Armageddon" and "Con-Air" -- the movie represented a calculated risk for Bruckheimer, given the failure of an earlier film based on Guerin's life and death. John Mackenzie's "When the Sky Falls" (2000) featured Joan Allen, a three-time Oscar nominee, as Sinead Hamilton, a journalist clearly based on Guerin. The film attracted average business in Ireland, but wasn't released to cinemas in the U.S.

Undaunted by the earlier film and its failure, Bruckheimer says, "I've never seen it, and I'm not worried about it. I hope people will come and see our film." He describes Guerin as "a remarkable character who gave up her own life for what she believed in."

An Oscar nominee for "Elizabeth" (1998), Blanchett inhabits the title role with an almost eerie authenticity. She looks uncannily like Guerin -- especially in the intense close-up shots -- and affects a convincing accent that strongly resembles Guerin's speaking voice.

"It must have been unthinkable for someone as public as she was to be killed like that," Blanchett says. "You would think you would be offered some sense of protection by that. That's incredibly shocking. But I'm not interested in forming any judgments about her. I'm more interested in the circumstances that surrounded her. Also, it is a very brave and generous thing for her family to be behind the film."

Unlike "When the Sky Falls," Schumacher's film had the cooperation of the Guerin family, and the reporter's younger brother, Jimmy Guerin, served as a consultant. The film's distributors, Buena Vista International (Ireland), organized a private screening for the family ahead of its release, and the family turned out in force for the film's stellar but somber world premiere in July.

It was followed by a reception in the elegant chambers of Dublin Castle and hosted by Ireland's arts minister, John O'Donoghue, who was the minister for justice at the time Veronica Guerin was murdered.

Infamous Irish gangsters

Early in the afternoon of June 26, 1996, Guerin was returning from an out-of-town court appearance for speeding charges when she was cold-bloodedly killed in broad daylight, shot by the pillion passenger on a motorcycle that pulled up next to her car on a busy motorway leading into Dublin.

It was a convulsive event that shocked people all over Ireland and abroad. Seven months before her death, Guerin was presented with the International Press Freedom Award at a ceremony in New York, making her the first Western European journalist to receive that accolade.

Earlier murder cases were so rare in Ireland that they generated massive media coverage, but by the mid-1990s, as drug dealers spread their tentacles throughout the cities and larger towns of Ireland, gangland murders had become more common.

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