Monday, 31 March 2014

REVIEW: Noirland (2014)

Noirland is a new film made in the North coast, particularly in Coleraine, which premiered during the 14th Belfast Film Festival. Written and directed by local author Philip Henry, Noirland is an anthology film containing three crime stories that are linked by characters and events.

Three policemen Detectives Marshall, Cranston and Robinson (Neill Virtue, Andy Porter and Richard Sherwood) met in a police bar on the day of Officer Kerry White’s (Carleen Melaugh) funeral. Each tells a story, which do not initially seem to have any connection but which slowly weaves a single web of murder, corruption and guilt. Disgraced ex-cop Marshall relates the investigation into Molly Macadori’s (Julie Virtue) murder. His partner Detective Carter (Conor Barr) suggests they hire medium Rosie (Elza Margrain) to help them out when they run out of leads. This leads to some unwelcome revelations. Cranston then tells a story about the last case he worked on alongside Officer White before she was killed. A seemingly content couple, the Crandalls (Robert Render and Liza Ackermann) are alarmed when their daughter Karen (Aimee Brett) goes missing. It turns out that she has been kidnapped and is given only a few hours to live unless they confess to a crime they have apparently committed. But neither of them know of what crime they are suspected and time is running out. Robinson then relates the events of that very day, including the circumstances of White’s death and his own attempts at revenge.

Structurally, the film is most reminiscent of Pulp Fiction and Sin City, the latter most particularly in the figure of the corrupt Mayor (Thomas J Smyth) whose influence is felt in all three stories. Tonally, the film runs in a similar vein as well, since it is mix of dark, violent scenes undercut with comic moments, most of which are not quite successful here. However, the film’s main forbears are probably the other low-to-no budget independent productions in Northern Ireland – Michael MacBroom’s Endless Life, Kieran Majury’s Deadville and Michael McNulty’s Toothbrush. Deadville and Toothbrush were competently made films – particularly since they got made at all – but suffered from awkward tonal shifts and a certain lack of finesse in their filmmaking. Noirland improves on both of them for its intricate plotting and (mostly) short and to-the-point scenes, but it does equally suffer from dodgy dialogue and some poor editing.

The middle story is probably the best, being a chamber piece set almost entirely inside a police station interview room. The tension builds palpably as time runs out and every wrong answer – every false crime admitted to – costs them half an hour. The other two stories are less successful. The first story feels slightly out of place with its supernatural elements and a twist that takes a little too much explaining. The third story is better, though it relies on the villain’s stupidity way too much (failing to remove vital evidence from two separate crime scenes) and it also hard to believe that Detective Robinson went to the police bar so soon after his vicious (though poorly put together) fight with the monolithic Mr Stone (Shane McCaffery). Or that he can go to work at the police station in Coleraine a full day after the murder of another Coleraine police officer and have heard nothing about it.

The dialogue is full of exposition and is overly descriptive – characters will tell us what they are thinking rather than reveal it through looks and gestures. The flirting scenes between Robinson and Kerry White are tin-eared, as is one scene in which Carter and the Mayor reminisce. In one bizarre sequence outside the medium’s house it is established that Detective Carter believes in mediums while Detective Marshall is sceptical. But when they go inside their roles are reversed and suddenly Carter is a non-believer and thinks it is a waste of time while Marshall is willing to give her a chance. The way in which Detective Cranston and the bar man at the policeman’s pub (Michael Killen) talk about White on the day of her funeral (to paraphrase - “She was a lovely young woman. And the guys at the station were always chatting her up. But she was never a bitch about it…”) is hopelessly sexist. Indeed, practically every female character in the film is either sexualised or victimized or both. One of the more uncomfortable jokes in the film involving a prostitute called Cherry Picker (Jenny Marshall) is also, unfortunately writer-director Philip Henry’s cameo.

The actors are all largely good, though they do suffer from underwritten characters and poor dialogue. Robert Render, Liza Ackermann, Andrew Porter and Carleen Melaugh are all very good as the second story reaches its climax – though Ackermann clearly has little to do when Detective Cranston strangely asks her character to leave the room to make them coffee, despite the fact that her daughter is soon to be murdered. Porter suffers some dodgy dialogue elsewhere, as does Neill Virtue. Richard Sherwood is good as well, though his character’s grief and thirst for revenge are not allowed the time to develop into much beyond a plot point.

Some scenes could be edited down to make them more snappy and better paced and the blocking leads to some difficult shots – such as one in which Carter is speaking but the camera is trained on Rosie’s back or another in which we stare at the back of Marshall’s head while two other totally obscured actors leave a room. Though minor, these problems do make the film seem a little less professionally made as it does otherwise appear.

Noirland then is an impressive achievement, and it certainly played to a packed and enthusiastic audience, but one that remains somewhat awkward and not as well made as it might have been. It has an intricate and interesting storyline but it is full of poor dialogue and badly thought out, stilted camerawork. It is also in need of much pacier editing. Nonetheless it is a notable addition to Northern Irish independent cinema and local cinema is all the better for it.

Noirland plays as part of the 14th Belfast Film Festival at the Movie House, Dublin Road, on 30 March.

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