Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Review - The Truth Commissioner - can he deliver truth, healing and closure?

The Truth Commissioner had its world première screening in front of a paying audience in the Queen’s Film Theatre on Monday 1 February as part of their Made in Britain season. The adaptation of David Park’s award winning book (reviewed) examines some of the complexity of the legacy issues Northern Ireland has yet to fully grasp.

Henry Stanfield is a serial peace-builder, a career diplomat who flies in to heal wounds and build bridges in conflicted regions of the world. And the Prime Minister has appointed him as Truth Commissioner for Northern Ireland. Aside from his formal role to listen to testimony from families, perpetrators and witnesses, Roger Allam (The Thick of It) portrays an aloof, lonely, loveless widower, struggling to repair his relationship with his daughter (who thought she had escaped him when she moved to Northern Ireland). His flesh is weak, his judgement is poor, his heart is often in nearly the right place: he’s a walking liability.

Connor Roche (played by Ciaran Flynn) was suspected of being a police informer and disappeared when the IRA discovered. His sister Maria Roche (Simone Kirby) and her mother seize the opportunity of the commission to discover the truth behind her brother’s disappearance.
We all want the truth, but what’s it going to cost?
James Fenton (Ian McElhinney) is a retired RUC officer, reluctant to be called to testify about his dealings with Connor. Sinn Féin’s Francis Gilmore (Sean McGinley) is an Executive minister, someone the British and Irish governments feel they can work with, but has a past that is catching up with him as rapidly as harder line colleagues want him to leave the stage. Finally, Michael Madden (Barry Ward) has been tracked down in Boston. With no family in Ireland and a minor role in Connor’s abduction, he’s the appointed fall guy to take the blame and protect more important people’s careers.

A moody Belfast provides the backdrop for the story, with the dark hills standing over the city’s stone buildings and modern glass architecture. (Derry’s newly renovated Guildhall provides the inside set for the Truth Commission chamber.)

There’s a clear liturgy as each new case is introduced at the commission. Families paint a pen picture of their relative, witnesses explain their involvement with the victim, and time is given for answers and reflection. We see a range of emotions and reactions through glimpses into other cases before Connor Roche’s family are called forward.

Through Madden’s flashbacks the audience build up a sense of Connor Roche’s fate. Snatches of news reports make clear that the commission’s work covers all sides of the Troubles.

Everyone involved has secrets. Each witness has someone standing over their shoulder shaping their story and covering up the truth. A shadowly MI5 spook is pulling strings while republican apparatchiks run rings around him.
Why would […] lie?

He thought he was telling the truth.
Truth doesn’t necessarily follow from honest testimony. Justice and healing don’t necessarily follow on from truth. Closure doesn’t require truth.

Based loosely but not entirely on the South African model, this film’s value isn’t as an advert for a truth commission in Northern Ireland. As a fictionalised worked example, The Truth Commissioner exposes enough flaws in the approach to undermine its applicability. (Though the film’s director and at least one of its producer were still keen on the idea of a truth commission when they answered my questions at the QFT’s Q&A after the screening.)

However, The Truth Commissioner is a significant reminder that for all the promises in A Fresh Start and the Secretary of State’s reassurances that political agreement around how to tackle legacy issue is “closer than its ever been”, no set of structures – neither Historical Investigations Unit nor Information Recovery bodies – will ever expose the whole truth unless the people involved choose to accept the responsibility to tell their story wholeheartedly.

With a single case at the heart of the film, there’s an element of stereotyping of republicans, security forces and even families of victims. The blurred bridge between fiction and real life makes it difficult for NI minds not to speculate in the darkened cinema: fictional politicians from real political parties; a fictional murder but with heavy real life parallels with informers and the disappeared.

The sedate pace of the film is at times underwhelming, rescued by the atmospheric background music and the tension created by the large screen. It’s a deliberate holding back, with director Declan Recks allowing events – even the most explosive ones – to be observed at a distance, with close-ups reserved for key moments.

There’s imagery aplenty (with empty swings reminding viewers of missing children) and nearly too much mirrored experience across the lives of the main characters. The original sequence of events in the novel has been altered and some of the book’s characters and backstories simplified to fit the 99 minute film. Given David Park’s deliberate distance from the production – no involvement with the script and only one visit to the set – it’s testament to the quality of his writing and imagination that so many details from his novel along with whole chunks of dialogue made it unscathed into Eoin O’Callaghan’s screenplay and the edited film.

The Truth Commissioner will be screened during Dublin International Film Festival on Sunday 21 February, and will be back in the Queen’s Film Theatre and cinemas across Ireland from Friday 26 February. BBC Northern Ireland will broadcast the film on BBC Two NI over the coming months too.

Cross-posted from Alan in Belfast.

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