The Railway Station Man (BBC 2) reunited cinema's most famous coupling couple, which was quite a coup for Screen Two. Screen chemistry is not something you get by writing large cheques: witness the vat of froth called Falling In Love that brought Streep and De Niro together for the first time since The Deer Hunter. Good scripts are usually a better insurance, and Shelagh Delaney's adaptation of Jennifer Johnston's novel was more than good.
Christmas lights twinkled in the window as the police arrived to tell Helen (Christie) that her husband, a teacher, had been shot by the IRA. They had got the wrong man. Ten years on she had moved across the border to the coast of Donegal, where she was busy painting the view. Also on site was Roger (Sutherland). He had been deprived of an arm in Vietnam and was now an itinerant railway station restorer. They seemed worthy pursuits for two bruised loners but, in the words of Manus, an unsmiling provo who had turned the heads of her son Jack and his assistant Damian, they were 'fiddling while Rome burns'.
Damian was played sotto voce by John Lynch, the lanky, skinny republican from Cal, and the moral theme of personal loyalty vs political conviction resurfaced here. Somehow, though, it wasn't central. The Troubles have been interpreted and portrayed often in films like this - sensitively, obliquely, subtly - but rarely to the extent that you almost forgot they were part of the picture.
For a start, much of the picture was taken up by Donegal, magnificent and craggy and basking, by the looks of things, in an unprecedented amount of sunshine. Christie skinny-dipped in the Atlantic and it almost looked like the Bahamas, except that for the rest of the time no one dressed, or drank, that way. Like Everymen who were what they wore, everyone kept the same clothes on throughout - Damian his bomber jacket and woollen hat, Manus his lugubrious overcoat - and they were always warming themselves with tea or Irish coffee or stout. In the scene in which Sutherland and Christie, after an idiosyncratic courtship, consummated things, he didn't bother to take off his jacket, and she was still in her woolly socks and hiking boots. For another act of intimacy, he did get down to his braces. Presumably the director Michael Whyte wanted to erase all memories of Roeg's swiftly cut encounter.
All the performances were vigorous but restrained. Christie, still radiant despite all the tragedies her agent has got her cast in, put on a lovely lilting Ulster accent that helped to gloss over the fact that she doesn't look remotely Irish. Sutherland loped around charmingly, flashing that extraordinary smile and looking just the type of amiable control freak to get all obsessed with disused signal boxes. Delaney's script made light of its dark, symbolic work. In one scene, Helen wanted to give her son's old toys to jumble but he stopped her, retrieving his Lego and board games - and this man is a messenger boy for terrorists. In another, Damian danced naked for her in the sea as she sketched him, and their sense of liberation had nothing to do with nationhood.
Only Christie's infrequent voice-overs seemed superfluous. 'All I do is paint my loneliness, my anger, my sadness and my hope,' she confided after the death of her boyfriend and her son, which must have read better on the last page of Johnston's novel. As the camera pulled away from Helen's cliff-top cottage at the end of the drama, with three burnt-out vehicles singed into you from the previous shot, the view of the rugged coast explained that the land would outlive all squabbling over nationality. The Irish Tourist Board must be purring. They're not the only ones.Reuse content