In the Land of Saints and Sinners (2023, dir. Robert Lorenz)

by | Apr 28, 2024

Certificate: 15

Running Time: 106 mins

UK Distributor: Netflix

UK Release Date: 26 April 2024

WHO’S IN IN THE LAND OF SAINTS AND SINNERS?

Liam Neeson, Kerry Condon, Jack Gleeson, Ciarán Hinds, Sarah Greene, Colm Meaney, Desmond Eastwood, Niamh Cusack, Conor MacNeill, Seamus O’Hara, Mark O’Regan, Valentine Olukoga, Bernadette Carty, Conor Hamill, Anne Brogan

WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?

Robert Lorenz (director), Terry Loane (writer, producer), Mark Michael McNally (writer), Markus Barmettler, Kieran Corrigan, Geraldine Hughes, Philip Lee, Jennifer Ritter, Bonnie Timmermann and Hubert Toint (producers), Diego Baldenweg, Lionel Baldenweg and Nora Baldenweg (composers), Tom Stern (cinematographer), Jeremiah O’Driscoll (editor)

WHAT’S IT ABOUT?

In 70s Ireland, a contract killer (Neeson) goes up against a group of IRA terrorists…

WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON IN THE LAND OF SAINTS AND SINNERS?

Taken may have reinvented him as an American action hero, but it’s easy to forget that Liam Neeson has always been, and will always be, proudly Irish. However, in the years since his status as a go-to Hollywood tough guy, Neeson has steered clear of bringing the action to his native country, perhaps to stay true to his newfound American identity that his natural Northern Irish accent can’t fully disguise.

For what it’s worth, his first such Ireland-set feature, director Robert Lorenz’s taut historical thriller In the Land of Saints and Sinners, is one of Neeson’s stronger projects in recent years, and a firm reminder of his Irish roots that few of his American-produced movies can claim to also provide.

Set in 1974, in the midst of the Troubles that saw conflict arise up and down the country, the film begins as a small group of Irish Republican Army terrorists, led by a fierce woman named Doireann (Kerry Condon), hiding out in a small village in Donegal after fleeing a pub bombing that goes wrong. In that same village lives Finbar Murphy (Liam Neeson), a contract killer who one day decides to throw in the towel and do something good with his life, rather than shoot the targets given to him by his handler Robert (Colm Meaney), who has also employed younger, more reckless killer Kevin (Jack Gleeson) alongside the more experienced Finbar. However, after one of the IRA trouble-makers gets on the now former killer’s bad side, it triggers a series of events that put both him and Doireann on the warpath.

While it’s true that In the Land of Saints and Sinners may not be working with the most original plot in the world – when you break it down, it is one of those films where a retired or retiring killer is called back to his past ways, which is practically Neeson’s bread and butter at this point – the film overcomes a number of its familiarities with a studious and more considerate approach that lends more thematic weight to itself. Director Lorenz (who previously worked with Neeson on The Marksman) lends his film a slower and calmer pace that wisely prioritises the characters and their personal dramatic arcs, as provided by writers Terry Loane and Mark Michael McNally, above most of the action. This allows many of them to feel better defined as people, so that when something sad or jovial or even comedic happens to them, you empathise with their circumstances a lot more, even with those of the less stable and more antagonistic figures in the narrative.

The forceful work of a strong ensemble cast helps to humanise these characters further, with strong turns by the likes of Kerry Condon, Colm Meaney and Ciarán Hinds (as a friendly local policeman) doing their bit to prevent their roles from being completely defined by archetypes. Neeson himself is on top form, for he really brings out the humanity of his character more than many of the recent action heroes he’s portrayed, easily switching back and forth from the gruff, no-nonsense killer he’s become known for post-Taken, and the friendlier local he masquerades as, who shoots cans with his old pal Hinds and asks his kindly neighbour for gardening tips. The scenes he shares with an equally impressive Jack Gleeson are particularly impactful. Beyond the obvious parallel between the older veteran and the cocky rookie, Neeson often looks haunted by his younger protégé and their callous attitude toward killing, as though he’s seeing the ghost of his own murderous young self. Through a mixture of performance and sharp writing, these scenes come off less cheesy than they are perhaps sounding here.

When the action eventually does factor in, Lorenz is careful to not completely disrupt the overall pacing and tone. The director makes a number of sequences feel suspenseful thanks to some sharp pacing and the intense nature of certain performances, though on occasion it can transform into a typical thriller that you would find on a streaming platform (perhaps why it ended up on Netflix here in the UK). However, by the time it reaches the inevitable shootout – because, well, it’s a Liam Neeson movie – you are gripped by whether or not certain characters are going to make it out, because again enough time has been spent with them to really get to the core of their humanity, and In the Land of Saints and Sinners is about finding the humanity in people that do terrible, unspeakable things for a living.

It’s not the freshest nor even the most unique of Liam Neeson’s action filmography, but a stern focus on character drama and building suspense over gunfights and explosions does make In the Land of Saints and Sinners a decent welcome home for the Irish movie star.

SO, TO SUM UP…

In the Land of Saints and Sinners is one of the finer Liam Neeson vehicles in recent years, for despite a number of familiarities it wisely favours character over action, which digs deeper into their humanity to make for a more empathetic viewing experience.

Three out of five stars

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