In cinema – world of surprises – you never know where the next astonishment will come from. Among this week’s promised films, Road stood out as the one I least wanted to see. A motorcycling documentary narrated by Liam Neeson. Wasn’t there some paint somewhere I could watch drying?
Cometh the day, cometh the revelation. A motor sports ignoramus has this advantage: I had never heard of Joey and Robert Dunlop, competing brothers in a post-1970s Northern Irish motorcycling dynasty so triumph-rich and tragedy-rich, that it should have stirred the reposing bones of Aeschylus. Dermot Lavery and Michael Hewitt, co-filmmakers, do little more than fire a starting gun and let their story go. Go it does. Here are impossible victories, terrible accidents, inconceivable recoveries – and deaths from which there is no return, except the artistic return of an inspiring story, one that touches the depths and all but breaks the heart.
We live in a golden age for screen sporting stories. Rush made our pulses race; Next Goal Wins won laughs and tears; expect soon the Cannes-lauded Foxcatcher, dramatising weirder-than-fiction events in the American wrestling world. Good sport is good drama. Road takes us from scepticism to spellbound spectating in the first 60 action seconds: biker’s-eye thrill rides at Mach speeds, blurring passing trees and hedges, swooping at bends to kiss the tarmac. Place: the Northern Irish and Manx highways, public-curfewed during contests except for the swelling hordes of watchers.
We take our hearts from our mouths, as if to breathe again, at each off-road interlude. But that’s a vain move: hearts are swiftly back in mouths as the human-interest tale, skilfully narrated and back-storied, gains power, pathos and momentum. Surely this couldn’t have happened to a single sporting family, or that … ? (I step around spoilers.) Joey and Robert are two unalike brothers – doughty, dashing road warrior and shyer sibling spurring himself to rivalry – until their lives collide in coincidences, some marvellous, some terrible.
The film spins its belief-defying story all the way to the end, by which time Robert’s sons have begun to pick up the patrimony of curse, triumph and kismet. This ought to be a Greek tragedy. Instead it’s just a biker documentary. But never was “just” less of a mot juste.