Belfast Telegraph

Road: High octane tale of life and death

The twists and turns of the Dunlop clan’s racing career make for a breathtaking film

By Andrew Johnston

Since Diarmuid Lavery and Michael Hewitt's adrenaline-fuelled documentary about the Dunlop road racing clan debuted at the 14th Belfast Film Festival earlier this year, another rider has been killed at the North West 200. The tragic death of Englishman Simon Andrews last month brings an extra layer of poignancy – and perhaps a degree of controversy – to the general release of a film that was already pretty hard to watch.

Traditional road racing divides the public like few other pursuits. Banned in much of the world, it is clinging on in Northern Ireland, the Isle of Man, a handful of European countries, New Zealand and Macau. It's hugely popular here, but opinions vary on whether the riders are heroes or simply reckless. Yet it is undeniably a fascinating world these men inhabit.

Road charts the rise of the sport in Northern Ireland, using almost quaint archive footage to take us back to a time when charging about on country lanes on motorbikes was as much a part of Northern Ireland's international image as bombings and shootings.

The film speeds from Joey Dunlop (above) discovering his love of bikes in Armoy in the 1970s to his nephew William taking first place in the 2008 North West 200, two days after his father Robert was killed while practising on the same circuit. Road is narrated by Ballymena-born movie heavyweight Liam Neeson, but the twists and turns of the Dunlop tale need little help from the star's gravelly tones. The film has more high drama and edge-of-your-seat moments than a dozen Hollywood blockbusters.

It might be a challenge for casual observers to comprehend what pushes people to risk serious injury or death in the name of sport, but this risk seems central to the appeal. "If motorcycle racing was not dangerous, I suspect most of them would not do it," opines veteran pundit Murray Walker, one of several experts, Dunlop family members and famous fans interviewed. William Dunlop, meanwhile, is even more blunt: "If something was to happen, I don't care."

And it doesn't come across as mere bravado. These are tough guys in the literal sense of the word: coarse, thick-skinned and unreconstructed in their matter-of-fact approach to their craft. It's arguable that Road chooses to revel in the riders' macho pronouncements rather than attempt to scratch beneath the surface, to search for a psychological explanation for their apparent death wish. But maybe no such explanation exists. There is half-hearted talk of "spiritual satisfaction" and "rural heritage", but essentially, these lot race because they want to. Because it's good craic.

And this in itself, at a time when so many sportsmen appear motivated by celebrity, sex or lucrative sponsorship deals, is fascinating.

Over time, Joey and Robert's story becomes even more grimly compelling. As the grey hairs, stiffening joints and injuries mount up, the siblings nevertheless can't quit. Like ageing rock stars compelled to keep on touring, the pair persevere well into their forties. But if something goes wrong on stage, the likes of Mick Jagger or Paul McCartney don't go smashing into a wall at 200 miles per hour. And with grim inevitability, Road arrives at the Dunlop brothers' deaths.

These tragic events are covered in unflinching detail, but Lavery and Hewitt's superb documentary succeeds in persuading the viewer not to be sad – that the Dunlops died doing what they loved.

  • Road is released in cinemas across Northern Ireland from next Wednesday, June 11

Four stars

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