A Belfast Story

Despite the flaws in Nathan Todd's debut feature, Malachi O'Doherty leaves a relatively happy customer

There is a strongly held view among some who have seen writer/director Nathan Todd's debut feature film A Belfast Story that it is tripe. That it is unrealistic. This is grounded on a few points that are difficult to refute.

It starts with a Chief Constable at the scene of a murder, briefing a jaded detective (Colm Meaney) on the evidence that some super-slick paramilitary group is wiping out old Provos. Apart from the echoes of Stuart Neville’s novel Twelve, there are other betrayals of lazy thinking.

Take the police uniform that looks like something a security guard on a building site would wear, the lookouts on bridges spying on Loyalist housing estates and reporting that all is quiet, the Republican First Minister with no sign of a Deputy, and a few other perspectives that only a local would catch, shots of Stormont filmed inside Belfast City Hall, for example.

Then there is the script in which every line is oratorical and philosophical, taking us into a world in which no one has ordinary conversations. And comedian Tim McGarry as a retired killer that you’re expected not to laugh at.

The negative critics will say that the storyline is ultimately a propagandist jibe at the Peace Process, that Jim Allister might have been an editorial consultant, and that some of the acting is plain wooden.

There is something in all of these arguments, yet I come out of the cinema having watched A Belfast Story – a film that made headlines recently after its producers posted boxes containing deconstructed nail bombs to members of the press in a bid to, well, make headlines – thinking that I had seen something novel and exciting that had only marginally betrayed its own amateurishness.

I pick up a clue on how to watch the film from the opening credits, in which the elaborate graphic – with resonances of Jim Fitzpatrick’s Irish Mythology images – prepare us for the possibility that we are not about to watch a movie so much as an animated graphic novel.

That is the medium in which the overblown preachifying and the stylised characterisation – in which everyone is more a metaphor than a person – can be seen to work well. And as for the moral question the film agonises over, it is a real question, about whether political compromise that enshrines absolution for murder sets a bad example for the future.

But, as we know, it is only in the simplistic thinking of those who think morality trumps politics that an argument like that can thrive. And there is a big flaw, if it’s a moral point you want to make – you don’t win moral arguments by killing people, however efficiently and symbolically.

So there’s the story – somebody is bumping off old Provos in a manner that demonstrates intimate knowledge of them. Who can it possibly be? What chance is there that these killings will resurrect the war?

The answers are better than the norm for violent thrillers of this type. They are intelligent and insightful and they are moral. They counter the simplifications of, chiefly, the Provos, with reminders of the greater complexity of the society that they grew out of. And they ask just how cynical the police might be.

The killings that resonate with the past are crafted with echoes of real events, which I shouldn’t spoil, but some in the audience will recognise high profile murders being referenced. So sometimes the story is grounded in reality, and at others sails blithely above all possibility of that.

Over all, A Belfast Story is like a tale from a Bizarro World parallel universe Northern Ireland, not the real one. The distance from reality may be what annoys many of those who go to see this film, but for me it is what makes it viable and interesting.

A Belfast Story is on general release now.

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