Sunday, April 26, 2009

Sean Bean Gets His Irish Up

At times, I think being an Anglophile is as much ingrained in the blood as it is being related to a country by birth. I’d mentioned in a previous post that the first time I saw Sean Bean was in The Field and Patriot Games, where he plays a young Irish farmer and an IRA terrorist, respectively. My own background consists of both Irish and English ancestors and I’d been raised with a good sense of both countries, their histories, their troubles and travails where I could see and empathize with the both sides of the equation. Films often enhance the experience and take you into a place and into the psyche of a certain character and I soon found out that Sean Bean was more than capable of taking me into a familiar world and expanding its horizons.

So imagine my surprise to find out that the fine Irish actor I had newly discovered was actually from Yorkshire. It’s not just a matter of jumping the Irish channel to England, but the distinction between the North and South of England as well. Some people outside the UK may not be aware there is a great difference, but it is not just the contrast between say, a posh English accent from the South and the discernible Northern accent of Sean’s birth…a mix of ‘sex and steel’ as one astute female observer noted. But it is also about his animal sense of place. A bit of ‘up the country’ in Sean’s ability to play those characters from the ground up, charging those roles with an innate sense of pride and gritty realism that makes him distinct amongst his peers. There’s a stand and fight sense about Sean Bean; a tradition long held dear on both sides of the Irish Sea.

Perhaps it is these character traits that drew a director’s or a producer’s eye towards Sean, for these early films. Did they somehow perceive or sniff out an Irishman in the making? Whatever it was, their keen foresight would prove largely prophetic for it was just the beginning in showcasing Sean’s flair for perfecting accents and absorbing people from all walks of life.

Sean Bean’s first appearance in a film as an Irishman was in the part of Dominic O’Brien in Catherine Cookson’s The Fifteen Streets, 1989. When Sean was first cast, Producer Ray Marshall had a challenge:

He needed someone dashing, a bit rough around the edges, but also something of a charmer. He instantly knew Sean Bean was right for the role of Dominic O'Brien. It was a casting made in heaven. And thanks to his role in the drama set on the Tyne docks in 1910, Sean Bean became a household name and international film star.
Jun 26 2001 Evening Chronicle

Dashing? A bit rough around the edges? Aye, Sean Bean was their man, all right. And he would prove perfect for the role of the brash, arrogant younger brother of the sensible, and even tempered John O’Brien.
The Fifteen Streets tells the story of turn-of-the-century Great Britain, where a Northern factory worker (Owen Teale) and an aristocratic school teacher fall deeply in love, only to find their passion sorely tested by their class and cultural differences. The story becomes further complicated when the naive and child-like Nancy from across the way becomes pregnant and everyone suspects John to be the father.

In his second role as an Irishman, Bean plays the slow-witted son of Bull McCabe in The Field, 1990. This time Sean was up against some true giants of his profession, keeping company with the likes of Richard Harris and John Hurt. These acting greats did not overshadow Bean’s ability to perform; in fact the challenge enhanced his work, proving that he could stand up to seasoned veterans with ease.
With very little dialogue, Bean was able to take us into the heart and mind of Tadgh McCabe; a son who bears the monstrous responsibility of a tragedy that occurred in the family years ago and who bears the brunt of his father’s anger. Emotions flicker over Sean’s face like clouds across a landscape; alternately playing light and dark in fleeting glimpses that threaten us with their presence. We are drawn in, unaware of it trespassing into our own emotions as we watch this grown man struggle to deal with his father’s irrational ideas and bullying tirades. When Tadgh finally meets a tinker’s daughter, we see him struggle to act like the man he so badly wants to become beneath his father’s relentless rule.

This may be one of Sean’s earliest roles but it remains one of my favorites for the sheer range of feeling he shows in a glance, the way he sets his jaw or in the slump and crouch of his body as he tears through the Irish countryside, seeking escape from unexpressed thoughts and confusion.

The fire and bravado we saw executed in Sean’s earlier portrayal of Dominic would serve him well when he came up for the role as Sean Miller in Patriot Games 1992. In this film, Bean plays an Irish terrorist bent on revenge for the killing of his younger brother by Jack Ryan (Harrison Ford) who foils a splinter faction of the IRA’s attempt to kill a member of the Royal Family. Obsessed with killing Ryan and his family, Bean displays his hatred in wordless vitriol.

Despite its many violent episodes, the film remains bloodless. Perhaps that can be traced to Mr. Clancy's fascination with technology, and to his way of treating human characters only slightly less methodically than he treats machines. The Ryans are so generically happy, and the terrorists so generically bad, that it's a wonder Mr. Noyce can create any real tension or surprise. But he has cast the villainous roles particularly well; the fierce-looking Sean Bean is outstandingly good as Ryan's main antagonist, and Patrick Bergen brings the right air of calculation to the terrorist mastermind he plays. Several of the film's main sequences, like an encounter between Mr. Bean's Sean Miller and David Threlfall as the police inspector who has been his captor, derive their horror from the looks of pure loathing that these terrorists bestow upon their prey.
Patriot Games by Janet Maslin New York Times, June 5, 1992

Sean’s Belfast accent was flawless and his deep-seated hatred for those who had destroyed his family sprang from genes you would have sworn were fast-rooted in troubled Irish soil.

To think that Bean was simultaneously filming Lady Chatterley, playing the sensitive Yorkshire gamekeeper Mellors which would quickly ensure his place as every woman’s ‘bit of rough’ whilst portraying a Belfast assassin who kills with calculated coolness and ferocity is astonishing.

One can’t help but wonder how we will see Bean pull off his two distinct roles and mindsets in the upcoming Ca$h. If experience has anything to teach us, it tells us to grab a passport and brush up on your Baedeker; Sean’s about to take you on a trip you’re not soon likely to forget.

Traci Moore