Made in Belfast

Fionola Meredith is underwhelmed by writer/director Paul Kennedy's debut feature at the Belfast Film Festival

Whether you're reading a novel or watching a play or a film, there's a tipping point – I find that it usually comes pretty early on – when you know if the whole thing's going to work for you or not.

Will you be whisked up and away in the powerful, exhilarating flight of the narrative, or are you going to be dragged bumpily along the ground for the next hundred pages (or minutes), hoping for release? Sometimes, it's not so clear-cut. You're left swinging between hope and disillusionment. And, for me, that's the case with Made in Belfast.

It's the story of Jack Kelly (Ciarán McMenamin), a Belfast-born, Booker-nominated writer, now living in Paris, whose rise to fame came courtesy of a novel which exposed the intimate secrets of his friends back home in Belfast.

Why these indiscretions were quite so inspiring is never explained but, needless to say, the mates weren't too happy about the results, and the fall-out from Jack's big splash was devastating – broken marriages, broken friendships, and a fiancee left standing at the altar.

It's only when Jack discovers that his father is dying that he returns, eight years after the book's original publication, and begins a rather long over-due process of atonement.

Making a film on a micro-budget isn't easy, and fair play to writer and director Paul Kennedy (who also appears in the film, as one of the aggrieved pals) for giving it his best shot with this, his debut feature. There are some good ideas in here.

With more money and time, and with a particular focus on developing the dialogue, Made in Belfast could have been a compelling movie, with something new and exciting to say about this city at this time. As it stands, however, it lacks depth and dynamism.

I just don't believe in McMenamin as a Booker-nominated author. There is nothing in his (highly limited, even monosyllabic) conversation or manner that indicates he is a master of language. I mean, he's clearly no John Banville. If anything, Jack is more like a senior member of a boy band, churlish, charmless and petulant.

As for Belfast itself, we get a perfectly enjoyable tour of its most pleasant spots, including Botanic Gardens and Ginger Bistro on Hope Street, though locals could be forgiven for wondering why a taxi from the city airport takes Jack to the Malone Lodge hotel on Eglantine Avenue via the new Titanic building. You're being fleeced there, Jack.

But there are no great insights about this complex place. The most we get is the observation, by Jack's ex, Alice (Shauna MacDonald), that 'it's like this city is trying to forget its past', or a quip by his brother, young Petesy (Shaun Blaney) – 'Have we always been bonkers in this country?' As we all know, it's a lot more rich and messy, a lot more contradictory and complicated than that.

Bronagh Gallagher does a fine turn as a lugubrious funeral director, and there is a nice bit of dialogue between Jack and Kevy, a recovering old soak played with customary aplomb by Lalor Roddy.

Kevy: 'I read your last book.' Jack: 'Did you like it?' Kevy: 'No, it was shite.' Jack: 'It was nominated for the Booker.' Kevy: 'Did it win?' Jack: 'No.' Kevy (with satisfaction): 'There you are. Shite.' More of this kind of dry repartee would lift the film above its tendency towards empty sentimentality.

Made in Belfast was the opening film of the 2013 Belfast Film Festival, and admittedly my mood on the night was not improved by some petty sadist sitting behind me, who repeatedly kicked the back of my chair throughout the entire screening. But if this film had caught and captured me, I might never have noticed.

The Belfast Film Festival continues until April 21.

Topics