Road

***

Reviewed by: Jeff Robson

"There’s no doubt that the film-makers know this world inside out and their cameras dig into every corner of it."

After Formula One motor racing became the subject of an impressive trio of dramas and documentaries (Senna, Rush and 1) in the space of a few years, it was perhaps inevitable that its two-wheeled relation would get the same treatment. But the area of the sport that Hewitt and Lavery’s atmospheric and often moving documentary charts is road racing – a world far removed from the jet-set locations and media saturation of its four-wheeled cousin.

Centred mainly on Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man (where the TT Races are its most famous annual event) it’s a close-knit community of passionate devotees, where the riders commonly spend as much time working on their machines as the mechanics. And one where, long after F1’s safety standards have almost eliminated the possibility of a driver fatality, every rider lays their life on the line in every race. Part of this is due to the nature of the sport – the road race branch of motorcycling does exactly what it says on the tin. The machines reach speeds of around 200mph but on ordinary, unmodified public highways.

Copy picture

Here the landscape at the side of the track is not a fortress of high-tech crash barriers or even close-packed bales of straw, but trees, lamp-posts and stone walls; what Neeson’s narration laconically describes as “unforgiving obstacles”. The film makes clear that the organisers make it as safe as it can be. But it’s equally obvious that it’s impossible to eliminate the ultimate risk. And, as Murray Walker, himself a former road racer, observes: “If it wasn’t dangerous, they wouldn’t do it.”

The Dunlop family, who are the film’s principal focus, certainly bear this out. Joey and his younger brother Robert started out in the Seventies, racing each other and their mates round the back roads of Northern Ireland and tinkering with their bikes until they “turned them into guided missiles”, cleaning up title after title once they turned professional. Intercut with vintage footage of their glory years are scenes charting the fortunes of Robert’s sons, Michael and William, as they continue the family tradition through a typical season – i.e. breakneck speeds and ever-present danger, with the Northern Irish weather frequently throwing added complications into the mix. The film certainly gives an insight into the mindset of the average road racer; a peculiar combination of acute awareness of the unique and myriad hazards of every course and an almost pathological conviction that “it’ll never happen to me”.

Sadly, it often does. Joey and Robert see several of their peers meet an untimely end. But their need for the adrenalin kick of bagging another trophy or squeezing a few more mph out of their machines still keeps them going.

They’re an intriguingly contrasting pair – Joey a quiet, modest family man who spent his time between seasons delivering truckloads of aid supplies to Bosnia or Romania; Robert somewhat closer to the stereotype of the driven, self-confident petrolhead for whom second place just means being “the first of the losers”. But their passion for the sport and the ties of blood unite them in a winning partnership that spans decades and brings them celebrity status in the road racing world and their local community. The years pass as quickly as the miles, however. Robert stubbornly recovers from a near-fatal crash to race again, despite medical advice; Joey plugs away at the TT well into his forties, battling through the lean years in the hope of one last win, and using the sport to blot out the pain of a personal loss. It’s pretty clear that tragedy will eventually hit the family. When it does, it’s impossible not to be moved by the impact it has on everyone in the brothers’ lives. And by the way in which Robert’s sons, just starting out as riders themselves, cope with the grief and try to honour the previous generation’s legacy - even though it puts their own lives at risk...

There’s no doubt that the film-makers know this world inside out and their cameras dig into every corner of it. You can almost smell the rain-washed tarmac and hear the engines’ strident roar. But an outsider’s eye (such as Asif Kapadia brought to Senna) might have brought a keener, more questioning air to the subject. I was intrigued to know more about the sport’s origins and whether its maverick, no-frills air had something to do with its location in the further-flung, less-prosperous corners of the UK. And whether the Dunlops’ success was a welcome diversion from the Troubles, a chance to see Northern Ireland in the sports section of the news for a change and blot out division and mistrust in a celebration of basic courage and triumph over the elements. And the womenfolk don’t get much of a look-in, outside of a dutiful supporting role (unlike in 1, which focused closely on the shared bond of the drivers’ wives). Though the lines on the face of May Dunlop, Joey and Robert’s mother, tell as eloquently as any narration of her time watching two generations of her family risk their lives every summer weekend for a sport they love.

More focus on those elements (and a little less of the occasionally too-portentous narration and plaintive choral music on the soundtrack) could have made Road a classic sports doc. But as it is, it’s a fascinating insight into an addictive, hermetic world.

Reviewed on: 17 Jun 2014
Share this with others on...
Adrenaline-fuelled tale of a family who have dominated road racing for more than 30 years.
Amazon link

Director: Michael Hewitt, Dermot Lavery

Writer: Diarmuid Lavery, Michael Hewitt

Starring: Liam Neeson

Year: 2014

Runtime: 102 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: UK, Ireland

Festivals:


Search database: