Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 22 July 2014

Why Liam really does understand the big picture

Liam Neeson

Liam Neeson's visit to Ballymena yesterday was magical. A bona fide Top Five all-action movie star was in the City of the Seven Towers to be given the freedom of his hometown.

Do other Hollywood stars come from small towns? Do they bother going back to get the freedom of them?

Liam Neeson. The very name conjures up strength, courage and cragginess but also a captivating gentleness and charming reticence.

We've always produced great actors: Kenneth Branagh, Greer Garson, Stephen Boyd, Colin Blakely, the Jameses Ellis and Nesbitt, Conleth Hill, Joseph Tomelty in Odd Man Out. But who else could open a blockbuster like Taken, a controversial historical biopic like Michael Collins or a less commercial affair like Woody Allen's Husbands -amp; Wives? Never mind genuine masterpieces such as Schindler's List and flawed monumental movies like Gangs of New York and Kinsey?

Nobody, that's who.

Yet Neeson's success has been an odd, all-too-Ulster matter. Not for him the easy progress of the pretty boy, professional luvvie or the costume drama smoothie with the RP accent.

He grew up in a provincial Northern Ireland town in a family of good people. Obsessed with acting, he studied briefly at Queen's, worked for Guinness, did the photocopying in an architect's office, toyed with the idea of teaching, and worked with amateur theatrical companies.

It was only when he started to tread the boards of the Lyric Theatre in his late twenties that his push for stardom began.

Yet for all his huge success, Liam has never turned his - at 6ft 4ins - very broad back on his native place. In ways, he represents the very best of us, reaching out to understand, admire and respect "the other side". He's always been his own man, rising above the bigotry and soft sectarianism that cascades through this place like the constant rain.

How easy it would have been for him to play up the war-torn nature of his home place and trade on the glamour of violence. He didn't. Rather, he got on with the business of being an actor, of becoming a star, of broadening his range.

It took guts to risk the comfort zone of being a regular in small, classy, independent films to chance becoming a huge box office attraction. The A-Team, The Grey and Taken may not be art house films but they made the Ballymena boy an enduring megastar.

At home, his comportment towards his origins has been sure-footed and deft. A Catholic, he's often talked of his fascination with Ian Paisley; he revealed that as a boy he'd sneak into Free Presbyterian services to sample the spellbinding theatricality of the Big Man. Evidently this is a mutual fan club - the former First Minister was there yesterday, determined to enjoy a wee bit of stardust too.

Neeson's also been to Buckingham Palace to accept his OBE, and his film Five Minutes of Heaven (with James Nesbitt) is perhaps the most subtle and sophisticated film ever made about Northern Ireland. Much easier to have just said no.

Even Michael Collins, coming out when it did at the onset of the peace process, could be seen as support for the very idea of compromise, of stepping away from previous ideological positions.

In private, too, he has shown remarkable reserves of courage and dignity, most notably when his beloved wife Natasha died in a ski-ing accident. Left alone to bring up their two sons, he has thrown himself into work and shown them by example that life must go on, never the same, but with good moments still.

With all that he has achieved, who'd have blamed him if he'd just bowed out and counted his millions between the odd dip in the pool? Many have got out of this place and never looked its vexed way again. Instead Neeson has been instrumental in the rebirth of the Lyric, raises money for the Integrated Education Fund and is a UNICEF goodwill ambassador.

In a world of bad things topped off by very bad things, Liam Neeson is undoubtedly a good thing; a star who hasn't gotten too big for his boots but who wasn't prepared to conform to people's expectations; who is - Phantom Menace or no - his own man.

But most of all, Liam Neeson's interventions in our public life remind us that it is possible to be very true to oneself while making everyone else feel comfortable about themselves.

He will always be one of our better angels.

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