Sunday, 24 January 2010

Moviegate: Defence Of The Realm

Some of you might have watched In Treatment, an absorbing and intense HBO TV series featuring actor Gabriel Byrne who played Doctor Paul Weston, a psychotherapist frequently burnt by his constantly simmering and often fiery patients. 

Although Dublin-born Byrne is chiefly remembered for playing gang leader Dean Keaton in The Usual Suspects (1995, directed by Bryan Singer), I first recall Byrne’s smouldering on-screen presence as Nick Mullen (above), a scoop-seeking tabloid hack who turns overnight into a daring investigative reporter in Defence Of The Realm (1985, directed by David Drury, 92 minutes). It's this British film, set mainly in London, that kicks off this occasional Moviegate series looking at the depiction of investigative journalism on the big screen and on TV.

When first seen by British audiences in 1985, Defence Of The Realm reflected ongoing Cold War worries about the stationing of American nuclear weapons in Britain under the control of United States President Ronald Reagan. It also touched raw fears about excessive and oppressive United Kingdom government secrecy following the Official Secrets prosecutions of whistleblower Whitehall civil servants, Clive Ponting and Sarah Tisdall

However, I think Defence Of The Realm's enduring popularity partly stems from the way it captures and bottles the air of paranoia breathed by powerful money men, civil servants and by Her Majesty's less powerful subjects during Margaret Thatcher's Prime Ministerial realm in the 1980s. Thatcher and her backers seemed to regard all political dissent as Soviet-led, backed by 'Kremlin gold'. The British left viewed the UK as descending towards an undeclared police state. Released amid that paranoid climate, Defence Of The Realm enjoyed a receptive audience.

Mullen, a reporter for the Daily Dispatch, (a bit like the Daily Express), starts Defence Of The Realm as the uneasy recipient of an anonymous tip-off that uncovers a seemingly open and shut sex and national security scandal where Labour MP Dennis Markham (Ian Bannen) and a KGB agent have been sharing a prostitute. However, Mullen's journalistic instincts tell him that his story - that has forced Markham to resign - has fallen into his lap suspiciously easily. His instincts are confirmed when his troubled colleague Vernon Bayliss (superbly played by Denholm Elliott), who was working on a very different version of the Markham story, dies mysteriously after his London apartment was ransacked. Mullen works up Bayliss' story from a clutch of seemingly unrelated newspaper cuttings about Markham. It's a jigsaw yarn where Mullen cunningly unearths a near-nuclear disaster at an American airbase in eastern England and its cover-up by a powerful military and corporate alliance. 

Markham’s personal assistant Nina Beckham (played by ‘English rose’ Greta Scacchi) helps Mullen piece together this horrifying story against the menacing backdrop of mid-1980s London and the bleak, flat Norfolk fens. Admirably, Martin Stellman's well-crafted and pacey screenplay simmers their intensifying relationship, never allowing it to overshadow the crackling main plot and theme of how a journalist, manipulated by powerful forces, risks his own career and life to reveal the true story.

Mullen’s journalism is bluntly effective at the start of the film when he shoves his foot in the doorway to stop Beckman from shutting him out. Later, Mullen manipulates quotes from MP Markham’s wife by pretending to be a plainclothes policeman. She blurts to Mullen that Markham, her husband, is “an adulterous bastard" before realising too late, "you’re a bloody reporter!”

Later, Mullen records a visiting time conversation with a detained juvenile offender by hiding a micro-cassette tape recorder (a National Panasonic!) under the raincoat he’s placed on the table. Mullen also extracts information from a US Air Force press officer by saying he is working on a run-of-the-mill feature for an obscure trade magazine. He's then traumatised by discovering accidentally that the security services are secretly recording his phone conversations. 

Do Mullen and Beckman succeed and get the terrifying truth into the public domain? Or do Mullen’s own editors, pressurised by the newspaper’s corporate owners, betray him and spike his investigative journalism? Rather than spoil the ending for you, I'll just urge you to open the bottle for yourself and inhale the 1980s paranoia that exudes from every frame of Defence Of The Realm.

Moviegate Trivia
Nicholas 'Nick' Mullen's pal Vernon Bayliss (Denholm Elliott) gets to deliver the best lines.
Bayliss to Mullen: 'Oh, well, don't let the truth get in the way of a good story.'
Later, a despairing and drunk Bayliss slurs at Mullen: 'Vodka and Coca-Cola. Detente in a glass!'

After filming, Byrne paid Elliott the backhanded compliment: "I amended the actor's cliche to 'Never work with children, animals or Denholm Elliott'." 

Byrne watchers will be pleased to know that Dr. Paul Weston character returns soon in a new In Treatment series. According to my source in the world of psychotherapy, Weston's clients include Walter, played by actor John Mahoney who is best known as Martin Crane in Frasier. 

Top photo: courtesy Carlton TV

Next up on Moviegate: The Insider

Paul Coleman, London, January 2010.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Looks like Gabriel Byrne is one versatile actor! He's great in 'In Treatment' (roll on Season 2). p.s. Your 'source' is spot on.