A Belfast Story is a bizarre film in more ways than one. It is a silly by-the-numbers thriller that does genuinely try to engage in the political situation in Northern Ireland, but it is remarkably unsophisticated in its rhetoric and uncertain in its tone.
Colm Meaney, giving the film some much needed marquee value, plays a Loyalist-inclined detective in modern day Belfast. Someone is killing retired IRA members and Meaney is taken off the shelf to find the killers. But does he want to find them?
A Belfast Story is billed as a Todd family film, and while it speaks volumes for a burgeoning local film industry, it is just not good enough. It is a thwarted attempt at a political thriller, but it is equally flawed as a thriller. Where to start?
The script is heavy with exposition and cliché. We are not five minutes in before someone has called Meaney the “last of his kind.” We know what Meaney’s feelings about the legacy of the Troubles are because he talks about it in a strange soliloquy while alone in a room – all that’s missing is for him to finish his sentences with “Terry” to recall Jimmy Rabbitte interviewing himself in The Commitments. Todd had already begun his film with a speech about the Troubles, a nervous attempt to justify making a Troubles-themed thriller, and is merely repeating himself unnecessarily. There is a lot of repetition. The First Minister (Tommy O'Neill), bizarrely an ex-IRA Republican, will says things about “moulding peace from the ashes of the past.” Meanwhile his secretary (Susan Davey), when told that she is too young to understand, will say back, “Yes, I am. Too young to let the past mould the future.” Todd seems worried that his audience will miss something or possibly misread his intentions. The irony of ex-IRA police station bomber Tim McGarry – really, really miscast – banging on the doors of a police station, desperate to let in, is very evident - and then it is spelled out. Heavy-handedness is forgivable, especially to a debut, but where A Belfast Story ultimately fails is in its own confusion.
Initially the film has some interest. Meaney’s character is left intriguingly unclear – will he catch the killer or would he rather give them his tacit approval? This ambiguity is too-frequently referred to, as if the filmmakers have nothing else to go on, however. It is also terribly resolved. Instead of Meaney changing his opinions, everyone around him changes theirs. The murders are allowed to continue, Malcolm Sinclair’s Chief Constable deciding that Northern Ireland is better getting rid of some old pensioners. In the end, the killers get away with it and, worst of all, a united Ireland is achieved. The logic is clear, but ridiculously fantastical. If Northern Ireland got rid of its ex-paramilitaries (though there are no equivalent Loyalist murderers mentioned), whom are exerting too much of an influence on the country’s present and future, then a peaceful and moderate government would shortly achieve a united Ireland. But the film has to ignore a lot of details to make this point – a point it is hard to imagine sitting well with Martin McGuinness and Gerry Kelly in the unlikely event of either of them bothering to pay any attention to it. (1) Would everyone really be quite so cavalier about the assassination of the First Minister; (2) would the nationalist population be happy with the renamed Northern Ireland Police Service’s (NIPS?) tacit approval of vigilante murder; (3) would the unionist population not protest vigorously against a united Ireland, especially considering the degree of anger over the removal of a flag from City Hall. In fact, it is barely worth writing about. In its politics and its assessment of how Northern Ireland ‘works’, A Belfast Story loses all believability (if any is left following the scene of death by poison pasty), but also all credibility. It bemoans the tit-for-tat violence of the Troubles (although IRA violence alone is put under scrutiny) but in the end attempts to justify a series of murders as without consequence, politically expedient and, worst of all, somehow noble. Here, it is a laughable, immensely stupid disaster - much like the stunt PR campaign which included sending film critics fake nail bombs and balaclavas.
As a side note, it is interesting to note that the film begins with a story about the messiness of the violence of the Troubles in which an apologetic gunman murders a man in front of his family. However, the murders actually depicted in the film are freed of such complications by having the victims all live alone, seemingly without any family or friends whatsoever.
Too clichéd to be a decent thriller and too insultingly simplistic to say anything about Northern Ireland’s complicated politics, A Belfast Story is a train-wreck of a film that could only come out of post-peace process Northern Ireland. Its politics are ludicrous, tearing the film apart since it robs the thriller of a pay-off. Meaney lets the killers go, they kill the First Minister and send him a nice letter, one that needlessly explains their insane motivations and Ireland is united. Ignoring politics, the film need not exist narratively speaking. Someone is killing people, but everyone seems to be OK with it. A cop investigates and then decides he doesn’t need to. His boss intends to hang him out to dry but then doesn’t have to because he and everyone else in Northern Ireland seem to agree that the murderers shouldn’t be stopped. The murderers (Gordon Mahn and Patrick Buchanan) don’t want to live in a country in which they have to explain to their children that the head of state used to be a murderer. So they prefer to explain to their children that they are murderers themselves – their weapons of choice being nail bombs, sniper rifles, bricks and a poison pasty.
Independent cinema is finally showing its face in Northern Ireland but it is a real pity that A Belfast Story should be one of the first to be produced. Even Hollywood IRA thrillers are more sensible and realistic than this; Hollywood wouldn’t get away with A Belfast Story and not just because of the portentous title. It is a shame that Northern Ireland seems to be telling its own cinematic stories so shoddily. On freedom of speech, George Orwell wrote that, “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” A Belfast Story insures that there is a voice in Northern Irish cinema for the wingnuts.