You don’t sit down in front of Lost Lives (BBC2), a 90-minute film about the Troubles, in anticipation of light entertainment, but its litany of horrors is even more gruelling than you expect. It’s based on a 2001 book of the same name, a 1,700-page tome by five journalists that aims to tell the stories of more than 3,700 men, women and children who have died, on both sides, over decades of conflict.
Dermot Lavery and Michael Hewitt’s film picks out a fraction of the victims to paint a roughly chronological picture of the war. The endless tragedies seem all the more pointless in the light of current politics, which have raised the spectre of conflict in Ireland, more than 20 years after the Good Friday Agreement.
Without firsthand interviews of its own, the film relies on a cast of some of Ireland and Northern Ireland’s best known actors to read extracts from the book. Basically everyone’s there, even people whose Irish connections you might have forgotten, such as Sir Kenneth Branagh. Liam Neeson, Roma Downey, Adrian Dunbar, Brendan Gleeson, Michelle Fairley, James Nesbitt, and so on and so forth. Even half a century on, the stories have lost little of their power. There’s the mother of Stephen Keating, who wrote a letter to the Belfast Telegraph when her son was shot dead: “Sniper, do you know what you have done? You now have two lives to live – to live also for my son, Stephen Keating, the way he lived, loving life itself and helping anyone who asked for his help.”
Or the case of Peter and Malcolm Orr, Protestant teenage brothers who were killed in north Belfast in 1972 when they went to meet their Catholic girlfriends. Hardest of all are the children who were killed, 1 in 14 of the total. Where it’s appropriate, the filmmakers show archive footage as the stories are read. Relatives scream in bombed-out streets, widows and parents walk in silence behind hearses. On Bloody Sunday, people wave bloodstained white handkerchiefs at the British Army while they carry out the bodies of their friends.
The aggregate effect is undoubtedly powerful, but Lost Lives has its limitations as a piece of filmmaking. To encourage you to focus on the words, the footage is interspersed with long shots of the Irish landscape. There are dewy ferns, sweeping drone shots of forests, abandoned factories and dusty machinery, butterflies next to a dead rat, rivers and waterfalls and the thrashing sea, fighting stags with bits of grass on their antlers.
It’s lovely enough, but the effect of contrasting the ugliness of humanity with the beauty of the natural world wears off, and instead you are left at times with the impression of watching an audiobook. Towards the end, we see women giving birth: a sign of what? Hope? The endless renewal of conflict? Either way, it has the unfortunate flavour of a GCSE biology video. The book itself is included, too, with close-ups of pages and text. It even appears alone, hovering crudely above the landscape. These distractions are unnecessary when the material is so powerful, and so timely. Before the credits, every victim is listed by year. We expect them to come to a halt in the 21st century, but they don’t. There’s only one year, 2013, with no deaths. The most recent victim, the journalist Lyra McKee, shot while reporting in Derry last year, reminds us that this is far from ancient history.
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