Celebrating the Irish: In America

Movie review

Samantha Morton and Djimon Hounsou won Oscar nominations for their roles in Jim Sheridan’s “In America.” Sheridan himself and his two daughters were nominated for screenwriting. Emma Bolger didn’t get a nomination, but she stole the movie anyway.

Emma was 6 when Sheridan cast her to play the younger daughter in this story of an Irish family coming to New York City to make a better life and to try to ease the pain of their young son’s death. Emma had never acted before but she had won a poetry reading contest. That and the supreme confidence of a 6-year-old finally won her the part.

Sheridan rejected her at first because she was too good. He was worried she’d come across as too professional so he started to audition the next applicant. Suddenly, somebody pulled on his jacket. It was Emma, who asked him, “Jim, (why) is she reading my part?”

He didn’t have an answer for that. Nor did he put up much of a fight when she told him, “I have a sister down in the car. Why don’t you see her (for the older daughter’s part)?”

Sheridan had planned to cast a 14-year-old as Christy in this story that is partially based on his own life. But, as he told the audience at a Tribeca Film Festival screening last May, the one-two punch of the Bolger sisters was too much for him.

And so Emma and Sarah Bolger became Ariel and Christy, the daughters of Sarah (Morton) and Johnny (Paddy Considine). Hounsou (“Amistad”) plays a strange neighbor most people steer clear of.

Sheridan did, in fact, emigrate from Ireland to New York flat broke and he did have a brother – not a son – who died as a child, so Johnny, he has said, is partly himself, partly his father and “partly Paddy’s creation.” Sheridan’s daughters, both in the film industry themselves, contributed their own memories of coming here as children to round out the story.

“A lot of what takes place in the film really happened to us,” Sheridan said, “but I definitely changed and added a lot of things, including the time period. In fact, in some cases the truth was far too strange to work as fiction, and we wound up cutting out things that actually occurred because they seemed entirely too extraordinary.”

Academy Award nominations and winning awards is nothing new for Sheridan, whose first film, “My Left Foot,” was nominated for best picture of 1984 and won Oscars for its stars, Daniel Day-Lewis and Brenda Fricker.

His 1993 “In the Name of the Father,” a powerful drama that recounts the struggle for Gerry Conlan, a man wrongly persecuted and imprisoned for an IRA bombing, starred Day-Lewis and Emma Thompson. That film received numerous Academy Award nominations.

“In America” didn’t win in any of its categories this time, but the Sheridan trio and Hounsou did win numerous other awards for their work in what is Sheridan’s fifth film as writer, director and producer. Hounsou won an Independent Spirit Award for his role and the Screen Actors Guild nominated the entire cast, including those charming Bolger sisters, for Outstanding Performance.

The author can be reached at crummel@pww.org.