Like Sylvia Plath, the woman who lends her name to the passionate, effectively no-nonsense biopic Veronica Guerin made headlines in death. But Guerin also made plenty of headlines in life, directing her fierce energies into crime-beat journalism for the Sunday Independent, Ireland's biggest newspaper. The ballsy investigative reporter wrote stories that exposed the unchecked reach of Dublin's violent drug underworld in the 1990s, even after her family was threatened and she was shot in the leg and beaten up. In the end, she was killed for her tenacity, gunned down in her car at a traffic light in 1996 by a motorcyclist believed to be acting on drug-world orders. Guerin was 36.
Her death prompted national outrage and led to vital reform of lax laws that let criminals flourish. ''Veronica Guerin,'' though, focuses intently on the living Dubliner, and the finest honor director Joel Schumacher and screenwriters Carol Doyle and Mary Agnes Donoghue pay her -- and an audience who may be learning about her work for the first time -- is this: There's no airbrushing of character. She's played with intelligence whipped clean of any airs and poses by the always cleanly intelligent Cate Blanchett, who makes Guerin a 3-D woman, not a 2-D heroine.
Indeed, Schumacher works with relative modesty himself (more ''Tigerland'' than ''Batman & Robin''), his tendency toward glitzy flourishes held in check, perhaps, by admiration for the unusual bravery yet identifiable averageness of Guerin's life -- and by the grounding landscape of Dublin itself, in which the entire movie is shot. The film evades sensationalism even when the subject's chutzpah is sensational: Guerin's commitment is presented as no more or less impressive when she embeds herself with housing-project kids strung out on heroin than when she kicks a soccer ball around with her family. (A full subplot is condensed into a few scenes of no-frills affection between Guerin and her mother, played with great flint by Brenda Fricker.)
The movie presses forward with economy of storytelling -- and, to telegraph mood change, musical tweets of Irish pipe. The reporter gathers information (and disinformation) from a roguish middle-management crime-gang weakling (wonderfully dark-scowled Ciaran Hinds). She waylays cops and politicians. She pushes her way into the face of an icily brutal drug lord (a doozy of a performance from Gerard McSorley) at his baronial home, resulting in one of the most honestly terrifying moments in the history of journo-dramas. ''Veronica Guerin'' leaves no doubt that its subject wasn't the most elegant writer in the business, and certainly not the easiest to work with. But it also leaves no doubt about the danger of what she did, dressing in ladylike suits (she believed in the drama of presentation) to face serious thugs, and reporting what she learned, unintimidated. Her death was shocking; this well-made telling of her life is inspiring.