With ‘The Truth Commissioner’ shaking some skeletons out of the Troubles, director Declan Recks and star Barry Ward talk to Paul Byrne about such fictional northern exposure.

Based on David Park’s acclaimed novel of the same name, ‘The Truth Commissioner’ imagines the fictional scenario of a Commision For Truth And Reconciliation landing in the aftermath of The Troubles, in the hope of offering “communal healing and closure” for those who have lost loved ones.

In Declan Recks’ solid adaptation, Roger Allam takes on the title role, playing Henry Stanfield, almost a veteran at chairing such hearings but still finding himself shaken by the shadow games that threaten to make a mockery of his court. In a strong cast, Sean McGinley is the Gerry Adams-esque Francis Gilroy, Ian McElhinney is the RAF bigwig and Barry Ward is the patsy Paddy.

We caught up with Recks (whose previous outings include 1999’s ‘Making Ends Meet’ and 2008’s ‘Eden’, as well as a whole truckload of TV, such as ‘Pure Mule’, ‘The Clinic’ and ‘Scúp’) and Ward (‘Jimmy’s Hall’, ‘The Claim’, ‘The Survivalist’, ‘Rebellion’) in Dublin to go over the evidence…

When it comes to the north, most Irish people believe there are always men behind the men behind the men behind the wire. Is that what drew you to ‘The Truth Commissioner’? That great big hall of mirrors when it comes to The Troubles…
Declan Recks: The book was really the starting point for me. With David, around 2008, the disappeared were making the news, as graves were being discovered, so, I’m guessing that was part of the inspiration. I never actually asked David where it all sprang from. I just loved what he’d written.
Barry Ward: We’re also dealing with age-old fears, and universal fears. The idea of a truth commissioner in Northern Ireland has occurred elsewhere for real. It’s very similar to the amnesty courts in South Africa after apartheid. So, it’s got a lot of truth in there…
DR: I think it’s something that’s on the cards, and when David wrote the book, he probably thought it was closer than it was. Since The Good Friday Agreement, people have been waiting for just such a commission to be put in place…

For many, digging up old wounds is going to be a difficult challenge. Was it a challenge here to be sensitive to the real truths involved in The Troubles, showing the ugliness in the shadows without offending or upsetting one side or the other?
DR: I think you have to go with the characters – as long as they read as truthful, the situation will read as truthful too. Again, going back to the book, which I thought was a very honest approach, I felt that because David grew up in the midst of The Troubles, he would have an understanding of it far beyond you or I ever could, coming from the south.
BW: For me, what I loved about David’s book is that it had a clear understanding of the complexity in a situation like this. The truth is obscure, elusive, non-existent, multi-faceted. And the script didn’t shy away from that. There’s no easy solution here – and here are the complexities that might occur should we go down this route. The film asks more questions than it answers, and I kinda liked it for that.

Who’s a hero and who’s a villain is harder to define in these situations too…
DR: I think that’s what makes it so interesting – there are no clear heroes and villains. Everyone has the ability to be bad and good. Francis Gilroy would be a great example of that. He would have been classified as a villain in his earlier years, but now he has taken a decision to leave that behind him and take a democratic approach…

He sounds strangely familiar to me…
BW: True, true. There was a need to step into that grey area, where it can be viewed as good people do bad things or bad people do good things. Depending on which side of that political borderline you stand on.And then there’s the truth behind ‘The Truth Commissioner’. People might just recognise one or two real-life figures here…
BW: Well, you have to base this kind of scenario on truth, otherwise, what’s the point. There’s a situation in the north that’s been happening all over the world, and to put this particular scenario there, it just opens all kinds of interesting questions…
DR: The initial set-up may seem overly-familiar, and the situation in the north might feel that way too, but once you put this kind of light on the Troubles, you realise just how complex and multi-layered the peace process is. I think David assumed, when he was writing the novel, that we’d be at this point already by now. I’m sure there will be a truth commissioner stepping onto Belfast soil soon enough.
BW: It’s important to point out that this is a universal situation…

What surprised me most here was the inclusion of those ‘Lost In Translation’ elements here, Roger Allam’s truth commissioner all at sea in his personal life too, as he tries to reconnect with his adult daughter in Belfast. It brings home the need for family, and how we react when our family is threatened…
DR: I think that’s key to the drama here. Otherwise, it’s just other people’s problems. When you’re given a taste of what that fear can do to you, that dread of losing a loved one, that makes you realise the pain that each individual who’s lived through such horror is still going through.
BW: The mix of the personal and the public life is an interesting one too. There’s this idea that someone in the public eye is a cartoon, without problems at home, throws up a whole new layer to this film. Everyone’s got demons…

‘The Truth Commissioner’ is a tough sell commercially, when it comes to the multiplexes…
DR: Sure, it’s not your typical Saturday night out, but the fact that this film is being released on the big screen is a big plus for us. It wasn’t a given that ‘The Truth Commissioner’ would get a big-screen release…
BW: When I saw that it was a BBC Film, I assumed it was being made for TV, so, yeah, I’m pretty chuffed that we’re hitting the Dublin Film Festival with it, and that it’s going out there on the big screen. People are giving smart dramas more of a chance now, partly because the likes of HBO and Netflix have reintroduced concentration to film and television. People enjoy having something to chew on with their minds now more than ever…
DR: It’s a little bit like a hark back to the 1970s cinema, and how you could tell complex stories about complex people…

What grabbed you about The Truth Commissioner, young Barry?
BW: I liked the script, I liked the idea, the story we were telling, and I felt this was challenging too. I’m a philosopher – I’m a philosophy graduate – and this whetted my appetite, dealing with important truths. And it’s a good old-fashioned political thriller, which seems to be making a comeback, with the likes of ‘Spotlight’ and ‘The Big Short’.

Nice cast here too. Roger Allam should really just go to all auditions with his own attache case and government notes, of course…
DR: True. Anyone we approached, we basically got, which was great…
BW: I was last-minute though. A replacement…
DR: Were you last-minute?
BW: Rob Schneider dropped out at the 11th hour…
DR: I know Roger was attached very early on, but the biggest problem was working around TV. We kept losing people to long-running television shows. That’s what you’re always up against. They may not being used for the whole time, but they’re on call. It was the same with Conleith Hill – we had to bring him in after the original cast member couldn’t get out of his TV contract.

There are those who believe when the current generation of political leaders in the North move on, we’ll end up with something resembling a headless chicken there. Which sounds dangerous. Given that you guys dug deep here, have you come up with a long-term solution…?
BW: If only we’d had the time to sit around and figure out all the possibilities! You got that day’s shoot organised, you shot it, and then you went to bed.
DR: I don’t think we would be so pretentious as to suggest we have the answers here. We’re just happy to be able to get the questions right…

Would you guys be optimistic about the North’s long-term prospects?
DR: I’ve spent many years up there, on and off, working on various projects, and it’s a very progressive city. People there are looking foward, not backwards, and there’s a generation up there who have no real memory of the Troubles. But there is that possibility of violence there, with the likes of The Continuity IRA. Every Christmas up there, in the run-up, every second day there’s a bomb scare. They don’t get reported, deliberately, and a bomb went off on Christmas week, in the Cathedral Quarter…
BW: So, there’s work to be done still…

Speaking of possible bombs, the last time I spoke to you, Barry, you had just gotten your big break as the lead in Ken Loach’s ‘Jimmy’s Hall’ – and your one big fear was that this would be Ken’s first dud. Turned out to be neither a hit nor a dud, but somewhere inbetween, and, thankfully, the man has changed his mind about retiring. How was it for you?
BW: I was happy with the film in the end, but I’d be the first to admit it’s not one of Ken Loach’s best. But Ken on a bad day is better than most. There are elements to Jimmy Gralton’s story that I would have preferred to concentrate on, but that’s not the movie they were making…

You’ve been as busy as all hell ever since though, so, ‘Jimmy’s Hall’ had the desired effect on your career…
BW: Absolutely. Great calling card, you know. Good to see Jimmy’s case is being reexamined right now too. Should have happened much, much sooner, of course. Great man.

Declan, you’ve enjoyed a long, healthy career, working in TV, movies and beyond. Do you feel particularly Irish as a filmmaker, or are you just waiting for that Hollywood siren call?
DR: I’m pretty happy to follow the good work. There’s a lot going on at the moment, and the one I’m involved in now, with Eugene O’Brien again, is here too. But that doesn’t mean I’m not interested in stories overseas too. We’ve been trying to adapt Simon Carswell’s book, Anglo-Republic, for quite a while now too, and gotten close. The DPP is scaring people off for now, but that’s a really good script.It’s all about building up a body of work, and working with a group of people that you can trust.

Before we go, given that we’re dealing with truth here, and dealing with those crawling from the wreckage, you were in RTE’s series ‘Rebellion’, Barry.
BW: Yeah, I was seeing it after the event, and luckily, I’m in London, so I didn’t really get to experience all the bad reviews…You have to take the rough with the smooth, and you hopefully learn something new with each project. That’s the plan, at least…

Words: Paul Byrne

‘The Truth Commissioner’ is on limited release around Ireland from Friday February 26th 2016. Watch the trailer below…