Although the twist involving Jaye Davidson's Dill was perhaps what helped make the film the mainstream success it was in its day, it's Rea's portrayal of Fergus that makes the film. On the surface it begins as though it is any IRA related film as we follow an IRA group including Fergus, and his sorta girlfriend Jude (Miranda Richardson), as they kidnap a British soldier Jody (Forest Whittaker) for the purpose of releasing IRA prisoners though more likely a retribution killing. In his first scene we appear to see the underground soldier as Rea projects the blunt edge of such a man as he helps to take in Jody. The few succeeding scenes Rea makes Fergus appear to be the good soldier only during the easy act of taking the prisoner but not actually holding him. What follows though is where we see what Rea does in the role throughout the film in his realization of Fergus, which is something truly remarkable. This all begins when Fergus is initially assigned to watch Jody, who is originally hooded to prevent him from seeing anything, but eventually that comes after he reveals a fairly accurate description of Fergus from their brief interaction.
Now the initial acceptance of Jody, as more than a prisoner one can see what is so marvelous in Rea's performance. It is as Fergus is just speaking to Jody and as they speak not about hatred, or any sort of relation to the conflict there is but a brief smile in Rea's face. Rea's reaction though realizes this acceptances of this man as another human being with such simplicity yet such power. Rea makes no mind of it yet finds this in such a notable way. Afterward though we see Fergus as he asks about removing the hood, and here we perhaps already begin to see who really Fergus is as a man. There is an eagerness Rea brings just as man who wants to be able to help another human being, not as a soldier just trying to make things easier for himself in some way. In the succeeding scenes of Fergus watching over Jody Rea is excellent in portraying only a growing comfort and appreciation of a worthwhile human being. There is nothing forced within this, but rather through the ease of Rea's work that you can find it. Every glance of affection or word of kindness Rea brings a quiet honesty to.
In every second we spend with Fergus, Rea expresses such decency in such a vivid unassuming way. It is not in a single reaction but every reaction and interaction he has that Rea shows us the man that is Fergus. Even in his time with the amoral Jude, Rea portrays Fergus almost looking for any goodness in their tender moments together. The focus though ends up being with the man he's meant to hate. As their time nears an end Rea makes these moments of real friendship all the more poignant as he internalizes so effectively the building dread within his eyes as he speaks to the man. As he offers any words of comfort asking Jody not to think of the worst happening, it is within Rea's eyes his own sadness of thinking of the worst as well. Rea makes this all the more tragic though by making the connection so real. It is deeply moving when Fergus promises to seek out Jody girlfriend dill, or when he tells Jody a final story from his own past as it is earned by what Rea brings to the role. When the actual execution is to be done Rea's expression carries such weight pain as he essentially shows Fergus playing performing the act in his mind, being unable to carry it out.
The fallout of the botched plan by the IRA leaves Fergus alone to flee to London to apparently seek out Jody's love. Now the film's second act again tests Fergus though in a different way. It begins as though this is simply like the earlier film Cal with an IRA member attempting to make amends, but ends up in a guilt ridden relationship with the love of his "victim". Now to be sure Rea is great in these scenes by showing the awkwardness of the interactions. Rea is brilliantly awkward though again but just how natural he is in this. He reveals the protective streak of honoring Jody's request, but as well a general interest. He cloaks though every moment with a certain shyness that reflects his guilt over what has happens. Dill's own eagerness though pulls Fergus in further and everything seems set for a proper romance until Fergus finds Dill isn't quite who he expected through the famous twist. That twist though shouldn't overshadow what is really more important which is how it plays into Fergus's personal story. That story that continues because Fergus continues to fulfill his duty by watching over Dill, even though there is no longer a chance for a more intimate romance in his mind.
Now the following scenes continued to be so effectively portrayed by Rea in portraying the man being who he is, the only way he can be. Again now there is a different awkwardness, though the shame is still there, as he interacts with Dill who is still eager for a physical romance though Fergus cannot comply with that truly. Rea presents this as the man Fergus is. There is frustration, particularly after the initial revelation, yet in his reactions he shows the man still unable not to emphasize or well do the decent thing no matter where it brings him. Rea's work is this incredible realization of the central theme of a man behaving by his nature, featured in the story of the frog and the scorpion as regaled by Jody early in the film. This would later also be used in Drive, but there the driver was a man unable to escape his violent nature, this film follows a man unable to escape his good nature. The idea of being a good man seems perhaps easy enough, but maybe not so with Fergus going through the rather extreme circumstances revealed in every act of the film. Rea takes this beyond any idea through his performance that always captures a definite reality, and truth in the depiction of this man who always does the right thing, in his mind anyways. Rea's work that is in every second of his performance, not an expression or line wasted. It is not about any single moment but every moment. I have admit wrongdoing by not seeing just what Rea does through every scene, as he finds so much within that idea, and humanizes so beautifully. In every re-watch Rea's portrait of this man has only resonated more, creating such a emotional impact in every scene, that makes the film a far deeper and richer experience than the one suggested by the twist that defined its original notoriety.