Don’t watch The Truth Commissioner, do watch ’71 if you’re looking for a fast paced, tense thriller. It’s an equal parts compelling and distressing survive the night film set in Belfast at the turning point of the troubles. Strong script, directing and acting combine to create a film that’s hard to turn away from even at its most distressing.
There’s something about British TV dramas that I find rather draining. The only time I actually do find myself watching them seems to be when I don’t have clearance to use the TV remote. That is, on those nights that I observe the ritual of family obligation. This consists of avoiding conversation, together as a family, and is best done via watching endless repeats of crime dramas (the worse acted the better). I suspect that the whole thing is penance, but for what I’m not sure. Some nights it even pervades into my dreams and I am forced to watch in horror, as Tom and Joyce Barnaby attempt human communication for eternity, with no hope of escape.
My most recent viewing was of the adaptation of The Truth Commissioner on BBC 2, directed by Declan Recks and starring the usually brilliantly dry Roger Allam. The plan was to review it fully the next morning but unfortunately, by that time it was mostly forgotten. I vaguely recollect that it follows a fictional truth commission into an unsolved murder that occurred during the troubles in Ireland. It was not, as I had hoped Roger Allam starring in the role of a lifetime as The Jackyl from The Truth Commission wrestling heel stable.
For those like me who didn’t know, a truth commission “is a commission tasked with discovering and revealing past wrongdoing by a government, in the hope of resolving conflict left over from the past.” The most famous of which was to investigate cases linked to the South African apartheid. It’s an interesting premise, the troubles as their name suggests were a very murky time with both the Irish and English government dirtying their hands quite considerably. Opening up an inquest today brings into question how confused the motives of officials can be in high risk situations, and it’s parallels with the current situation with Isis are well worth delving into. It would come as no surprise to me if the novel from which this is adapted does so well, this show meanwhile does not. In fact this show doesn’t really do much of anything, its just bloated with empty dialogue and blank looks.
I have a feeling the producers behind this were aware of it too. Something about the way it is shot almost makes me feel like this was meant to be a small scale cinema release at one point and then early into filming everyone got cold feet and it was downsized to TV. It very quickly feels like they don’t know what to do with the visuals. Every scene begins with a generic establishing shots of the city, followed by plodding dialogue. Roger Allam’s character might be developed in the book but here we just catch flashes of exposition for why he continually looks like a bored guppy. They rush through his character so much that every choice he makes feels conspicuously forced. His first night in a high profile job and he sleeps with a prostitute. I can imagine that in the book he might be characterized to the point where we see his loneliness about his dead wife and distant daughter is at some sort of apex. In the show he just looks like a sad old stupid randy man. He emptily bumbles from scene to scene. I can’t even recall any more specifics of the first hour twenty of the show, just shallow character archetypes. At the end we have the classic crime drama moment where the mother confronts her child’s murderer, its a good performance but by this point were so far removed from the case and so far into boring sad guppy mans life that its hard to care. The endings fine… eugh fuck I can’t believe I’ve managed to write this much about it. Don’t watch the thing.
As little impression as it made it did at least remind me of another story concerning the troubles that I have been meaning to watch for some time now, based on various recommendations, ’71.’71 Is the antithesis of The Truth Commissioner, rather than reexamining the wounds of a national tragedy through dusty dialogue, that wound is torn open through a frantic and terrifying portrayal of those Belfast streets. That is not to say that ’71 is not without thought, just as with The truth commissioner, both at their heart are an exploration of the moral murkiness that fuels violently chaotic situations.
’71 is the directorial debut from Yann Demange and stars a brilliant Jack O’Connell in the lead. It follows a newly recruited English soldier’s second night after being deployed in Belfast at the turning point of the troubles. During an ill advised outing to let the army’s presence be known, young private Hook (O’Connell) is left stranded and alone in war torn Belfast. Over the course of the night he becomes captive to various splintered groups each trying to use him as a bargaining chip in their own interests.
The film is built on divides. Divides in the army ranks between unwitting soldiers and their inexperienced upper class officers, divides between the under-informed officers, undercover operatives and local police forces. And most prominently the divide between the catholic nationalists and the protestant unionists and within that, the divide between the politically motivated older elements that make up the OIRA and the anger driven, more radical, younger elements. Each division leaves confusion in its wake creating a chaotic and complex situation. The film’s strength, beyond its powerful use of violence, is that it manages to create this complex web of misdirection and simple miscommunication without getting bogged down in it. It clocks in at just 1h 40m and remains gut wrenching without being oversimplified throughout.
The film opens lacklusterly with the standard army training montage and establishment of family ties back home. It’s necessary stuff and doesn’t hamper the pace as almost immediately we are brought to Belfast. There is some more necessary exposition about the two factions allegiances with regards to England and then the film begins proper on the streets of Belfast. We are immediately greeted with children flinging their own shit in protest, much to the amusement of the new recruits. The scene is backdropped with flaming cars and blown out buildings casually strewn about and manages to create a good sense of the alien in the familiar, what with Belfast being so close to home.
The recruits amusement is quickly lost as they are asked to assist in a weapons raid by the local police. This commences the strongest scene of the film, which ends in a chase. Everything comes together, the acting, shooting and sound design to create something hugely tense and memorable. The film is worth seeing for this bit alone. At the scene’s close the film pauses, along with our protagonist to catch its breath, and enter its second act where the intersecting faction’s interests collide, and where the mistakes of individuals within their respective groups quickly creates ripples with large implications. This then sets up some surprisingly strong character driven arcs and narratives to tie up the film. Admittedly, there is some pretty standard stuff to do with the corruption of youths into gang violence within this that feels a bit tried and tested, but at the end of the day it’s still effective stuff.
In summary this is well worth anyone’s time. It’s not very informative but it creates an atmosphere that spells out the fear of the period. O’Connell’s performance is truly compelling and combined with the solid script & direction, it creates a film that’s hard to turn away from, even at its most distressing. That’s not to say its perfect, it stuck with me less than I was expecting, with only certain scenes remaining distinct. I think that’s due in large part to its compliant reliance on a fairly standard framework of army politics and survive till morning tropes. Things that we’ve come to be overly familiar with. Still, the result is an engrossing narrative that’s solid but packs no surprises.