Two Angry Men

Toto Ellis leaves us longing for a feature length in his debut short outlining the theatrical censorship his father and Sam Thompson faced in Belfast 60 years ago

‘I’ve got a play you won’t touch with a barge pole’ said Belfast shipyard-worker-turned-playwright Sam Thompson to a young James Ellis one day in 1959, handing him the script for his latest play Over the Bridge.

Inside the pages was a play based on sectarian dispute in Belfast’s Harland and Wolff shipyards. It was the first time such a controversial subject had been artistically broached or even acknowledged, hence Thompson’s cautionary words. What followed was a desperate battle of two men against the establishment fighting to have their work see the light of day.

Fast-forward 57 years and to the premier of Two Angry Men, Toto Ellis’ first short film starring Adrian Dunbar and Mark Shea who play Thompson and Ellis respectively. The film is screening to a packed auditorium at the Strand Arts Centre, jointly presented with Belfast Film Festival, just 500 metres from where Toto’s father lived on 30 Park Avenue, East Belfast.

Toto’s directorial debut is about the two ‘angry’ men and how they fought to get Over the Bridge on to the stage and into the public domain. Two Angry Men does and says a lot for a film just shy of 20 minutes in length; beginning with the infamous words of Thompson as he hands Ellis the script it features resonant scenes of dialogue from the play, emotional vignettes at the house of Ellis’ father and constant rejection from the theatres of the time as we watch the two artists fight to stage their play about religious division, eventually succeeding on their final attempt.

Although originally shot in 4K colour the film was later converted to greyscale during the post-production process, a decision which Toto later defended as not just an attempt at giving a period feel but instead a ‘noir-ey, gritty intenseness’ deserved of such a subject. This is particularly effective during the many scenes set at close-quarters – hushed conversations inside Belfast’s numerous public houses, the moment Ellis’ father for the first time reads the script of Over the Bridge in his living room, simultaneously overcome with joy and fear.

Where Two Angry Men really shines, however, is in its affectional soundtrack. Poignant and emotive, it beautifully underscores Ellis’ and Thompson’s battle as the pair run into instant censorship from the Chairman of the Group Theatre – where the play was to be hosted - and ultimately the entire Belfast establishment.

Michael Shea and Adrian Dunbar in Two Angry Men

The film is also meticulously produced for something so low in budget, giving the impression of a feature length rather than a short. Unfortunately, however, it eventually suffers in its brevity; documenting what was effectively the prelude of the Troubles as well as the lives of two of Ireland’s most celebrated theatrical artists is deserved of much more than 17-minute run time and the audience are ultimately left wanting for more detail. The condensed plot also means that appearances from such quality actors as Michael Smiley (The Lobster) and Conleth Hill (Game of Thrones) are fleeting.

That being said, one gets the impression that this is not the last we will see of Toto and his interpretation of events surrounding the release of Over the Bridge. During a Q&A session following the screening the debutant states his intention of eventually expanding Two Angry Men into a feature length.

‘We’d love to stretch it out in to a feature length version,’ says the advertising-strategist-turned-filmmaker, now in his 30s. ‘It’s a story that’s very hard to get into 17 minutes,’ he claims, whilst using the example of a comical ‘bust up’ with Orson Wells – who also attended the play’s premiere with Laurence Olivier - at a showing of Over the Bridge in Dublin.

Upon viewing Toto’s short, beautiful and fascinating though it is, one cannot help but look forward to an unabbreviated follow-up that delivers fully on the texture and drama only teased here. We aren't allowed time to truly appreciate the sense of what's at stake for Thompson and Ellis, in terms of their careers and perhaps even lives during such an explosive period of our recent history.

Two Angry Men will now be toured at film festivals across Europe having already screened at Cork Film Festival earlier in November. Toto also hopes to eventually take the film to America where they ‘have a real connection and affinity with Irish and Northern Irish stories.’

See what else is coming up at the Strand Arts Centre at www.strandartscentre.com. For more events from Belfast Film Festival visit www.belfastfilmfestival.org.