There’s finally peace in Northern Ireland, but some people have not buried the past. This is the premise behind first-time director Nathan Todd’s A Belfast Story.
Colm Meaney (The Commitments, Layer Cake, Con Air) plays hardened detective James, who, like many of his generation in Northern Ireland, are living in times of “peace”. In his own words, he’s “chased every agent with a bomb, orange or green”. A Belfast Story follows James through his new assignment with the police force: track down the vigilante killer who is offing ex-IRA members left and right and bring them to justice.
But it’s in the unravelling of what should be an intriguing and politically charged film that A Belfast Story lets itself down.
Nonetheless: the good points. This was obviously a subject matter close to director Nathan Todd’s heart. He’s lived in both Cork and Belfast, was previously an engineer and has switched to filmmaking. That Todd was able to secure fellow Irishman Colm Meaney (born in Dublin and, as his Wikipedia page will say, a supporter of Sinn Féin during the 2011 Irish Presidential Elections) for the lead role is such a win for the film.
There are real moments of insight throughout, whether as a plot device or as a true representation of life in Belfast right now. Ex-IRA members, aware of their actions in the past and now targeted for murder, are not naïve to the enemies they’ve made – in A Belfast Story, they’re quick on their getaways. They’ve got plans for escaping their homes quickly, they know how to check their cars for bombs, and they’ve got their families on standby ready to leave at a moment’s notice.
There are also glimpses into how the current population of Belfast might be living post-Troubles. In one telling scene, a couple of teenage street thugs, the kind you would find in any big city, attempt to hold up a man in an alleyway. “Bloody peace”, the man says, “This city used to be too hard for the likes of them”. It’s interesting that Todd’s version of Belfast is a place where people are living with levels of violence, and not just one level, which is all-out war. In Todd’s Belfast, everyone still lives with the reality of violence – you can mistake the gun you keep by your side for your remote control for the TV.
There are aspects of the film that are truly eye opening. The idea that some people are so keen for some kind of peace, after the ravages of war, that they will never want to look back, and that they’re willing to turn a blind eye to any new violence now, is an idea that wouldn’t occur to anyone who’s lived undisturbed by war. “Shadows of the past” are characters that will remain where they belong: in the past.
One of the more challenging aspects of this film is how different generations in post-war Northern Ireland had experienced the Troubles. A Belfast Story depict people who have lived through it and were just as much a part of the Troubles as any so-called terrorist, even at government level. The new generation? They’re keen to move forward. The older generation complain that the youth don’t remember the causes of the war, and the younger generation don’t want these causes to shape their future.
All the elements were there to make A Belfast Story a truly thought-provoking tale, but its execution fell short of something memorable. The dialogue, whilst provocative at times, was a little too clichéd to really hit home, and Colm Meaney, who could probably give Morgan Freeman a run for his money in the “I can deliver my lines with gravitas” stakes, wasn’t given a lot to work with, as we’re never really tracking him throughout the film. The cast and performances would have been really moving had the script been a bit tighter.
Is this any reason to stay away from A Belfast Story? Absolutely not. It’s a difficult subject matter for anyone to tackle and it was told with as much dignity as a first-time director could have given it. For many people, A Belfast Story will at the very least pique your interest and touch a nerve, whether you are Irish or not – take one look at news reports and you’ll see that people are still struggling with burying the hatchet, finding closure and walking away from vengeance. It will leave you thinking about how war continues, and if it ever really ends.
Review Score: TWO AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
A Belfast Story is released on DVD and Blu-Ray in Australia on August 27th, 2014 through Eagle Entertainment.