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Sunday, 20 October 2013

The Thin White Dude's Reviews - A Belfast Story

Directed by: Nathan Todd

Produced by: Shelly Jackson
John Todd

Screenplay by: Nathan Todd

Starring: Colm Meaney
Malcolm Sinclair
Tommy O'Neill
Patrick Rocks
Damien Hasson
Susan Davey
Maggie Cronin
Tim McGarry

Music by: Nick Glennie-Smith
Mac Quayle

Cinematography by: Peter Holland

Editing by: John Wright

Studio: Adnuco Pictures

Distributed by: Kaleidoscope Entertainment

Release date(s): September 20, 2013 (Northern Ireland and Ireland)
October 25, 2013 (United Kingdom)

Running time: 99 minutes

Country: Ireland

Language: English

Production budget: (N/A)

Box-office revenue (as of publication): (N/A)

Alright there, proverbial preamble by yours truly, yadda yadda yadda. Slow weekend with work (again!), but I suppose that's the nature of the beast in private contracting: peaks and troughs. Still, it has given me plenty of chance to see new movies and old, and as such I can promise reviews for plenty of films this month and I'm gonna putting that article on Lucio Fulci's Gates Of Hell trilogy soon. Also, I watched Suspiria for the first time yesterday, and I have to say it was a mind-blowing assault on the senses. I'm not gonna get too much into it, but as an Argento fan I have to say that nothing could have prepared me for what I saw, and it was a tremendous bit of filmmaking. With that in mind, an article on Dario Argento will be posted somewhere down the line. Although the primary topic on this blog is reviewing contemporary films, I'll try on occasion to put out articles on different subjects within the realm of film, so, for all the latest (and greatest) in film, keep your eyes posted. 

So, today's review (and the second movie in a row without a Wikipedia article for reference sake!) is A Belfast Story. With a name like that, you'd think, and of course it is set in Belfast, a little place in Northern Ireland that has at times a shoddy international reputation but has since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement moved forward significantly into a peace process. It's just not being gone about the right way, ahem! It also happens to be the place on this planet I call home, and looking at the UK release date for the film (October 25th), it seems we've got the film a month early. The film is written and directed by local debutant Nathan Todd, it stars Colm Meaney as a weary detective on the hunt for the murderers of ex-IRA paramilitaries, the Chief Constable (Malcolm Sinclair) anxious of the possibility of retaliation and the reigniting of regular terrorist activity (and yes, I will use the word terrorist!). Writer-director Todd caused a stir in the press packet he sent out for the film, which featured duct tape, a bag of nails and a balaclava, losing PR film Way To Blue and having Kaleidoscope (the distributor) come out and say they had nothing to with this. Now, while plenty of bleeding hearts are bleating about insensitivity and being offended, they probably need to release that they are being played like an accordion, because nothing drums up publicity like a moral stir, with words like 'controversial.' Best to leave all judgement of character aside, and just get to reviewing the movie. Like so!

Starting with the good about A Belfast Story, I must say that it is an interesting way to start the movie with an animated title sequence involving a visual history of the conflict(s) in these parts. Not only is it something which has been neglected of late in terms of opening a film (the only title sequence that stands out in recent memory is that of David Fincher's The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo), but it sets up the historiography and thematic content of the movie. As far as the acting goes, Colm Meaney is the obvious highlight. He is well-cast as the dreary detective, groaning and drawling with great eloquence. I talked about being able to listen Malcolm McDowell in Sanitarium, believe me, Meaney could have been talking nonsense and I still probably would have listened to it. Also, in the physical sense, his burly frame and slumped shoulders make for a character as aged and world-weary as the tired old squabbles themselves. Perhaps the most interesting thing that the movie does is that it actually tries to challenge the politics of the nation and propose a thesis of sorts. This isn't the type of Belfast-minstrels that you get with many of these IRA-glory baiting movies; it actually has the gonads to take a stand and say, well, perhaps these guys deserved what they're getting. It's posing questions and moral quandaries ("Nobody is ever happy until their grieving again.") that A Belfast Story does best. Also, in the murders there is an intelligent element of black humour, playing up each of the victims' history and their past transgressions, creating a really gallows sense of irony. It's also a well-shot film, with DP Peter Holland clearly employing his skills in lighting, showing Belfast in all its drabness. Unlike all the ridiculous Our Time, Our Place advertisements, which do nothing to inspire confidence in our cultural identity, Holland's Belfast is appropriately full of dark shadows and alleys, giving it, at it's best moments, a noir feel. Whatever way Holland has shot it, it has just the right level of neutrality in the lens' used and the lighting. Finally, Nathan Todd as a director keeps A Belfast Story on a consistent line throughout. From a directing standpoint, it's a solid debut, carried with relative conviction from the beginning to it's conclusion. 

However, despite there being good elements to A Belfast Story, there are perhaps an equal amount of negative things to be said about the film. As I said, I respected the fact that it poses moral quandaries and has a gallows humour, but despite this, it is a relatively uninventive film. Despite his solid role as a director, Todd's script has numerous deficiencies. The characters are more or less cyphers for the moral arguments, and the fact is you just don't get any real impression of them being people that inhabit the film's world. Furthermore, it is for all intents and purposes a run of the mill, murder-by-numbers thriller at it's heart, and brings nothing new to the table. You can put a pink bow on it (or in the case of the poster, a shamrock), but it's still pretty ugly, turgid work. The ending too is sloppy, ditching it's objective stance for clear Q&A "we'll pose the questions and tell you the answers" mantras, giving the characters no sense of conclusion and a horribly rushed deus ex machina when taken into the context of the conflict. In most other movies, you could go "what the hey!", but the fact is they're the ones who bring up the context, so it's their own fault! Also, while we have Colm Meaney doing his earnest to convince, a number of the featured players are terrible, seemingly plucked out of the Eisensteinian school of acting, which consists of "you, that face! You, that face!" In particular, Damien Hasson and Susan Davey, who are given nothing roles for a start and are supposed to be a sort-of representation of the younger generation, are woeful, lacking any genuine conviction, coming across as lacking in the necessary tools to convey any real feeling. Also, Nick Glennie-Smith and Mac Quayle's work in the music department undercuts things way too much. I appreciate the many folk and musical traditions of my country, but there really is no need for all the fiddles of the world to be played in moments where silence is golden. It's in that classic vein of music force-feeding the audience, and speaking of dressing up, you can give them any instrument you want, but I'll still recognise the Emotional Heartstrings Orchestra (EHO) when I hear 'em. 

The greatest irony about the cultural depictions of Northern Ireland is that it is people from outside this country who have done the best at portraying it. Sure, there's been In The Name Of The Father, Mickeybo & Me and Hunger, but the fact is is that the best films about the country and/or The Troubles are Paul Greengrass' Bloody Sunday and Alan Clarke's devastating Elephant, for my money the definitive word on The Troubles. If the Dutch Paul Verhoeven can direct the definitive word on eighties-America (RoboCop), why can't Englishmen do the same for us? Unfortunately, for all the title sequences, Colm Meaney's, moral quandaries, strong cinematography and solid direction from Nathan Todd, A Belfast Story does nothing to add to the cultural depiction of Northern Ireland. The script is murder-by-numbers, with a preposterously ill-timed deus ex machina, and some of the acting is terribly lacking in conviction, with a score that tries to force-feed the audience their emotions way too much. Despite this, the movie must be judged as it stands as a movie alone, and it's a decent one somewhere down the middle, however flawed.

The Thin White Dude's Prognosis - 5.2/10

The Thin White Dude's Self-Diagnosis - Anticipating (a box of Pringles!)

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