Game of Thrones Season Opener

Matthew Coyle reviews the opening episode of Game of Thrones season 4 at Belfast Film Festival – spoiler alert!

If there exists, somewhere, an ounce of Game of Thrones fatigue, there is no evidence of it in Belfast. A collection of hardy fans queue patiently on a bitterly cold March evening, waiting for admittance to the Movie House, Dublin Road, and the first night of the the Belfast Film Festival. Winter is coming.

In securing a prized preview of the newest episode of HBO’s fantasy drama, BFF has pulled off something of a coup. Yet it is a testament also to the central role currently occupied by the American cable giant in the development of Northern Ireland as an important hub for film and television production.

Game of Thrones is a bona fide juggernaut, and its ongoing creation in Belfast's Titanic Quarter and at locations across the country speaks to the success it has so far enjoyed during its four-year stay.

By extension, BFF sits as the creative showpiece in an increasingly relevant filmmaking landscape. It also flies the flag for a city keen to establish itself as a producer of high-end output – both foreign and domestic – and one which is home to a bustling, diverse artistic sector.

HBO has long enjoyed a reputation as a purveyor of material rich in appeal from both a commercial and innovative standpoint. That it should contribute to BFF’s 2014 slate is a bonus for the many local Thrones fans who take great pride in Northern Ireland’s contribution to this realisation of A Song of Ice and Fire, George RR Martin’s towering literary saga.

With series regular Ian McElhinney in attendance, the organisers are good enough to put on two separate screenings of season four’s opening instalment, 'Two Swords'. Of the 7,000 hopeful applicants, 500 lucky, excited souls are on hand for a sneak peak some two weeks before the rest of the world gets to join in.

Picking up, roughly, at the halfway point of Martin’s third volume, A Storm of Swords, the episode begins with the calculating Tywin Lannister (the always brilliant Charles Dance) destroying the great sword of Sean Bean’s late, tragic Ned Stark. In melting it down to forge two new blades, he essentially usurpes the Starks’ proud heritage – by tossing its wolfskin scabbard into the furnace, he finally dismisses the threat so chillingly snuffed out in season three.

For a show big on statements, it is a considered and nuanced opening sequence. It suggests, now more than ever, that showrunners David Benioff and DB Weiss are confident custodians of HBO’s most valuable asset. Indeed, Game of Thrones occupies a curious place in the zeitgeist.

A series of peerless majesty, it straddles the divide between screens large and small. It may be beamed into living rooms on a weekly basis, but the content is undeniably cinematic in nature. Its arrival on the large screen may be unfamiliar but the novelty is, nonetheless, entirely fitting given the spectacular, arch fantasy at its core.

From the moment that Emilia Clarke and her dragons appear, one is struck by the ease with which it all translates to the scale of a movie theatre. As the messianic, quietly ruthless Daenerys Targaryen, Clarke has grown into the role with each passing year. Alongside McElhinney’s stoic Barristan Selmy, the ‘Mother of Dragons’ occupies one of the sprawling tale’s more compellingly fantastical arcs.

Equally thrilling is the introduction of fan favourite Oberyn Martell, the hot-tempered, hypersexual nobleman intent on seeking revenge for a murdered sister. Pedro Pascal carries, with ease, Martell’s potent brew of charm, cunning and menace. His crackling interplay with star turn, Peter Dinklage, offers a delicious hint of what is to come. The casting represents another inspired choice by the Benioff-Weiss think tank.

Game of Thrones is now running on all cylinders, though it has not completely abandoned the notion of attracting new viewers. On more than one occasion, the usually taut dialogue slips into exposition at the expense of the story. It is not a burden to relive the myriad events leading up to this point but the more it happens, the more it jars. With any luck, this need to rake over the past will have dissipated by the time season four truly breaks out.

As ever, much is packed into the 50 minute running time, and the final scenes featuring Sandor Clegane (Rory McCann) and Maisie Williams’s Arya Stark ably capture all that makes Thrones great. Funny and foul-mouthed, violent and visceral, the duo’s encounter with a band of murderous marauders is a classic summation of the jagged alliances and lust for vengeance that have always defined the show.

The final corruption of Arya is met not as tragedy but as triumph. It is in these contradictions that the real strengths lie. For BFF, its association with HBO is an impressive start, an admirable response to obvious public appetites. As a means of getting people through the door and excited for the rest of the programme, it is a fairly inspired choice.

Belfast Film Festival runs until April 5. The fourth season of Game of Thrones will be broadcast on Sky Atlantic from April 7.