The Truth Commissioner
A bit of a shorter review for this one, a political thriller with a setting close to any Irish person’s heart. It isn’t that there haven’t been good political thrillers set in this country, and in the north, but they tend to be outweighed by the bad, and there have been some stinkers in my time. From director Declan Recks comes this offering, a screening of which I caught at the Audi Dublin International Film Festival.
Henry Stanfield (Roger Allam) is appointed by the British PM to head a South Africa-style “Truth and Reconciliation” commission in Northern Ireland. The already tense job is complicated when he takes special interest in a specific case brought to his attention by estranged daughter Emma (Jasmine Hyde), which potentially implicates prominent Republican leader Francis Gilroy (Sean McGinley) in a sordid Troubles-era killing.
There’s many problems with Recks’ The Truth Commisioner. Straight away you can tell, even if it escaped my notice in the opening credits, that it is an adaptation of a book, in this case by David Parks, because it has all the traits of an unimaginative by-the-numbers reprocessing from the page: there’s little narrative zip or visual oomph to this production, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised to discover that it is an incredibly faithful adaptation. One that fails to adequately make the jump from literature to moving pictures.
And it’s not even in the right place. My girlfriend, who can be trusted to know about such things, was right when she commented that the film felt very much like a BBC drama that should have been aired in a few parts over a few weekends, fleshed out a bit to give it some weight, and more time for the very limp characters to become something bigger and better.
The filming style is heavily reminiscent of things like Judge John Deed, The Fall or even the original House Of Cards in a way. It works better on a small screen I think, where the drab interiors and dimly lit scenes aren’t quite as noticeable. The Truth Commisioner has pretensions of being a proper big screen experience, but just doesn’t make the cut. No surprise, I suppose, to parcel through Recks’ back catalogue and see a litany of TV projects, as far back as Mystic Knights Of Tir Na Nog.
There is something potentially quite good in here, with an examination of the Troubles through the lens of this fictional commission, something that the North never really got. The most compelling scenes are easily those that take place during the commission, like the sight of a bereaved widow violently attacking the IRA man who killed her husband. Such things give a window into the latent rage and grief that the Troubles left in Northern Ireland, that the country has never adequately dealt woih, for reasons of political expediency as much as anything else (something the film is keen to shine a light upon).
So, we have a Sinn Fein party with stand-ins for Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness (I think), divided between a peaceful or violent path. MI5, in the form of a somewhat hard to swallow Tom Goodman-Hill, is hovering around trying to pick the best path for HMG. And there is Henry Stanfield right in the middle of it, replete with Game Of Thrones bodyguard. You have potential in all of it, and one of the things that you need to get it really going is a strong central performance from this would-be peacemaker.
And therein lies the film’s biggest flaw. Roger Allam is not a bad actor. He’s utterly brilliant as the bumbling Conservative Minister in The Thick Of It or as Falstaff in both parts of Henry IV. But here, from start to finish, he looks utterly uninterested in everything around him, giving a dull, plodding performance, with barely a hint of any of the gravitas or verve he has been known to bring to the stage. Instead, Stanfield is a man who talks softly to the point where he seems to be whispering all the time, and who substitutes genuine emotion with looking out a succession of windows gloomily.
The character is a man being dragged between a multitude of different forces, and needed to have an emotional range that is never really onscreen. In in no interaction does Allam convince, not with the estranged daughter, not with the obviously honeypot, not with anyone. And with this significant problem tied around its neck, TTC is dragged unwillingly into the depths.
With Allam failing, everyone around him is struggling to. McGinley’s been better, as has his foil Conleth Hill, who gives from being delightfully hammy as Varys to giving a really unlikeable and forgettable performance here. Tom Goodman-Hill just doesn’t cut it as a ladies man spy and Madeline Mantock’s assistant is the kind of character you imagine comes off as more important in the book (women in general get short shrift throughout this production). Michael Madden, recently of RTE’s Rebellion, is a surprise stand-out as a crucial witness to the case in question, but his time on screen is painfully limited.
The Truth Commissioner clearly wants to be House Of Cards – the American version – but can’t maintain whatever underlying tension with the cast struggling as they are, and with the script utterly failing to set the world on fire, with character relationships stated bluntly and exposition spun out whenever necessary. Whole reams of dialogue have the feel of being better on the page than they do on film. Amid all of the undercover skulduggery, shadowy backroom deals and threatening phonecalls, you need strong performances, decent cinematography and effective wordplay, and this film is falling short on all those counts.
There’s a very peculiar and regrettable predictableness to the entire proceedings – the aforementioned honeypot is something you’ll see coming the moment the character appears onscreen for example, and watching Stanfield consider, once more, the night-time vista of Belfast like he’s looking out over a battlefield is not an effective substitute for actual drama (and that entire subplot, a very predictable exercise indeed, makes a mockery of the Stanfield character, presented as someone who should have the diplomatic experience to see such charades when they present themselves). And even the final “twist” ending isn’t something all that shocking.
Indeed, it is The Truth Commisioner’s ending that is also a serious problem. The central mystery surrounding who actually killed one of the Troubles’ many victims never really gets under the viewers skin the way it should, and the eventual reveal is neither greatly surprising or interesting. More, the film builds to the kind of political scenario that would be an utter catastrophe in real-life politics, but then very strangely ends on an oddly positive and optimistic note, despite the grim future the characters have been responsible for ushering in. This kind of tonal shift, rapid in its execution, is not very palatable. There’s a faint whiff of a sequel being set up too, like a second series has already been approved.
There should be decent insight into Northern Ireland evident here, but there’s too much stereotyping of Republicans – almost the exclusive focus really, with Unionists getting a pass – and negative portrayals of the truth commission idea for it to be taken seriously. Not that it’s all unfair I suppose, you can easily imagine such an entity being turned into an impotent political football, but the film itself seems to pour scorn on the idea that the North can move beyond its violent past, to an extent that seems, even to me, overly cynical.
Ultimately then, The Truth Commisioner is a disappointing affair. It had the materials in place to present something compelling, but fell far short, due in no small part to a very poor effort from a large part of its cast, an unimpressive script and some rather pedestrian visual direction. This is absolutely the kind of affair that should have been pitched and created as a television mini-series, a medium where it might have had more opportunities to grow and evolve into something with a higher final quality. Instead, it seems like a very tame and bland book adaptation, that will barely register on the popular consciousness within a very short time. Not recommended.
(All images are copyright of Wildcard Distribution).