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. The Prime Minister appoints 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.
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.)
In a film that examines the complexity of the legacy issues Northern Ireland has yet to fully grasp, Ciaran Flynn plays the character of Connor Roche who is suspected of being a police informer. He 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.
Truth doesn’t necessarily follow from honest testimony. Justice and healing don’t necessarily follow on from truth. Closure doesn’t require truth.
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.
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.
Directed by Declan Recks; screenplay by Eoin O’Callaghan; original novel by David Park.
Sunday 13 March at 9pm on BBC Two NI and subsequently on iPlayer.