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Non-Review Review: The Truth Commissioner

This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2016.

The Truth Commissioner began life as a pitch for a BBC television show.

This is quite clear from the way that film is put together, both in terms of plotting and in terms of visual composition. It is not too difficult to imagine The Truth Commissioner stretched out to a prestigious six-week television drama event series, playing as a sibling series to other politically-charged thrillers like The Honourable Woman or The Night Manager; albeit with a more modest cast and location than those two recent high-profile examples of the BBC’s dramatic programming.

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As written by Eoin O’Callaghan, The Truth Commissioner feels rather condensed; populated by a cast of characters who seem compressed to fit the movie’s relatively modest runtime. Character relationships and dynamics are rendered in extremes; they are either left inferred or bluntly stated. There is a sense that The Truth Commissioner has been stripped down to fit this particular format, playing as a rough outline of a strong central idea rather than a fully realised political thriller.

Director Declan Recks does a great job realising this contemporary Belfast drama, layering on the paranoia as the eponymous character finds himself navigating dangerous waters. The Truth Commissioner is a stylish piece of work, albeit one that seems more like a condensed BBC drama than an exciting feature film in its own right.

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It is perhaps surprising that so few political thrillers have chosen to set themselves against the backdrop of the Northern Irish peace process. Indeed, barring the spate of superficial “Irish terrorist” thrillers of the nineties (from Patriot Games to The Devil’s Own to The Jackal), Northern Ireland has been notable by its absence from these sorts of stories. Even when Irish and British cinema does wade into the political quagmire that was the Troubles (as in The Crying Game or Shadow Dancer), the stories are far removed from the politics.

This reluctance and unease is understandable; after all, the Northern Irish peace process has been long and delicate. More than that, the politics of that peace process remain quite charged for all of the major parties involved. Any story coopting the Northern Irish peace process as background material for a political thriller is liable to be political dynamite in Ireland or the United Kingdom, the two markets most invested in the process. Still, it is strange to think that there has never been a thriller like The Kingdom or Syriana set in Belfast.

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As such, there is something refreshingly blunt about The Truth Commissioner. Not only is the political thriller rooted in the Northern Irish peace process, but it is quite overt in how it uses that backdrop. A significant portion of The Truth Commissioner is devoted to the internal politics of Sinn Fein, a real-life political party that is a major player in Irish politics on both sides of the border. The Truth Commissioner does not attempt to disguise its references or its politics, instead reveling in them.

There is also something quite cheeky about the timing of the release. Arriving in cinemas late in February 2016, The Truth Commissioner appears on the cusp of an Irish general election that may see Sinn Fein becoming an even more significant player in Irish politics. With its fictionalised portrayal of internal Sinn Fein party politics, The Truth Commissioner has quite carefully chosen the date for its limited cinematic release; it is a fittingly bold move for a film with a minimal amount of subtlety.

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The Truth Commissioner is loosely adapted from David Park’s 2008 novel. It feels like an adaptation trapped by the formal constraints of ninety-minute drama. The central characters feel more like cyphers than fully-formed individuals, with certain plot threads either cut short or relegated entirely to exposition. There is not enough room for character development, so exposition dumps have to do; this is especially true of the film’s female characters, who are often treated as plot points whose motivations and allegiances are bluntly stated by male characters.

Still, The Truth Commissioner is a very polished piece of work. Although working with a tight budget and a heavy-handed script, Declan Recks proves a suitably tense and paranoid atmosphere to the film. Although perhaps a little too fond of moody (and thematically resonant) shots of characters staring out over city lights from hotel windows or over running water, Recks captures the uncertainty and anxiety of his material quite well; there are lots of steady tracking shots that create a palpable unease, along with low angles building tension.

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The Truth Commissioner works best when it is broad, as one might expect when adapting such a complex subject and such intricate source material into a ninety minute film. Reeks does an excellent job setting the tone of the film, whether it is the meaningful glances that communicate more than the words being spoken or the empty swings rocking in a gentle breeze. In particular, Reeks emphasises the powerlessness of the viewer to shape the narrative, repeatedly framing shots to position the camera between sets of characters dictating their own version of events.

Roger Allam does great work in the title role of Harry Stanfield, a man who has wondered into a viper’s nest in his attempts to bring closure to decades of trauma. As with a lot of the film’s plotting and character work, Stanfield’s family drama feels more like a broadly-drawn outline than an engaging arc; his brief affair with a beautiful stranger feels more like a brief diversion than an escalating threat. However, Allam anchors all of these disjointed elements, proving the film with a solid core.

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The Truth Commissioner is a stylish and solid film, but one that feels very much like a condensed version of a more compelling miniseries.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Audi Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 3

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