Saturday 19 October 2019

"Lost Lives" (Guardian 18/10/19)

Lost Lives ****
Dirs: Michael Hewitt, Diarmuid Lavery. Documentary with the voices of: Kenneth Branagh, Ciaran Hinds, Susan Lynch, Brid Brennan. 93 mins. Cert: 15

Few films released in 2019 have seemed this timely, this urgent. Documentarists Michael Hewitt and Diarmuid Lavery have come up with an immensely powerful adaptation of a remarkable artefact: the thumping chronicle written over seven years by David McKittrick, Seamus Kelters, Brian Feeney, Chris Thornton and David McVea, obituarising 3,700 of the lives taken during the Irish Troubles.

From the book’s first pages, Hewitt and Lavery pull the scene-setting example of nine-year-old Patrick Rooney, killed by an RUC bullet as he lay in bed during a riot in August 1969; in the final moments, they addend the name of Lyra McKee, the young journalist shot by dissident Republicans during rioting this past April. Entry by entry, the film constructs a sorrowful history of promise extinguished – and a pointed reminder of what lurks behind any rollback of the Good Friday Agreement.

That simple, effective conceit is given further heft by the who’s-who of Irish acting talent recruited to tackle the authors’ judicious phrasing. Ciaran Hinds lends the Rooney story new, tragic life; elsewhere, the likes of Adrian Dunbar, Susan Lynch and Kenneth Branagh sound understandably moved or appalled by the waste they describe. (Emotion, like the past, sits close to the surface throughout.)

That variation of voices staves off any monotony inherent in the list format, and each story opens up some revealing front. Collectively, they provide a renewed sense of just how widespread and all-consuming the Troubles were, how they caught up combatants and civilians, young and old alike.

Hewitt and Lavery wouldn’t have had to wander too far into the archives for visual evidence of the taut, fraught Ireland of yesteryear, yet be warned: there are images here that couldn’t have been shown on the nightly news, interrupting the detachment instilled in the original prose.

The filmmakers fashion jolting contrasts besides: with the enduring beauty of the Irish landscape, and with today’s gleamingly secure pleasure palaces, built after civil war was replaced by something like peace. Even here, though, Mark Garrett’s roaming camera detects a certain man-made melancholy, and those words and stories keep coming at us, their accumulated weight of detail socking the viewer in the gut and forcing tears to the eyes. Is this a book we really want to reopen?

Lost Lives screens in selected cinemas for one night only this Wednesday (the 23rd).

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