A Belfast Story: Film Review

Post-Troubles revenge drama misses the target.

Colm Meaney stars in this politically charged Northern Irish murder thriller from first-time writer-director Nathan Todd.

Several recent thrillers have tried to address the deep, unresolved tensions of contemporary Northern Ireland after more than a decade of uneasy peace, most notably Oliver Hirschbiegel's Five Minutes of Heaven and James Marsh’s Shadow Dancer. Locally-born writer-director Nathan Todd attempts something similar in his debut feature, a murder mystery with political overtones, but his inexperience lets him down badly. A Belfast Story has already earned minor notoriety in Britain for its promotional press kit, which included a terrorist balaclava and nail-bomb ingredients: an ill-judged publicity stunt for an ill-conceived film.

The reliably magnetic presence of Colm Meaney anchors Todd’s low-budget production, and was no doubt instrumental in securing it a release in British theaters this week. A compelling blend of crumple-faced charm and brooding menace, Meaney becomes more and more like an Irish Gene Hackman with every role. But unfortunately, not even his heavyweight gravitas can save A Belfast Story from its weak script, sluggish pacing and one-dimensional characters. Beyond its limited U.K. release, TV sales and home viewing formats seem the most likely outlets in overseas markets.

Meaney stars as the unnamed Detective, an archetypally world-weary old-timer on the Belfast police force. On the verge of retirement, he is assigned to investigate a string of inventively violent murders of retired IRA members by a mysterious vigilante group. Threatening to drag Northern Ireland back to the “Troubles”, the killing spree also jeopardizes a new political establishment headed by a stage-villain First Minister (Tommy O’Neil) and morally shady police chief (Malcolm Sinclair), both of whom are keen to whitewash their historical links to terrorist groups on both sides of the sectarian divide.

Over a cliché-drenched score of misty-eyed Celtic folk-rock, Meaney manfully struggles to deliver clunkingly portentous cod-poetry like "I count corpses, not causes," but his less capable co-stars come unstuck chewing through some similarly leaden lines. A smarter screenplay might also have helped distract from the cheapness of the production. Despite boasting an experienced technical team that includes veterans of various Martin Scorsese, James Bond and Harry Potter features, A Belfast Story looks small and cramped. The city of Belfast appears to consist of three shabby suburban streets, while the whole of Northern Ireland seems to be run by two politicians and three policemen.

Which is a shame, because Todd has the seeds of a potentially fascinating thriller here. The premise of a Protestant police detective assigned to protect the retired IRA bombers who killed his daughter might have produced the kind of tense, talk-heavy drama well served by Meaney’s considerable acting chops. There is also a great film to be made probing the blood-soaked political landscape of contemporary Northern Ireland, and speculating how an angry new post-sectarian generation might tackle the current state of stalemate.

Rich subject matter indeed. Alas, the solution proposed by A Belfast Story in its belated third-act twist is highly simplistic and deeply dubious: enduring peace through a final orgy of cleansing violence. Anyone who grew up with the Troubles at the top of their daily news bulletin will greet this bone-headed pay-off with nothing but bitter laughter. Slathered in yet more syrupy Celtic folk-rock, Todd’s last clumsy flourish as the end credits roll is a thank-you credit to God. Sadly, he is not being ironic.

Production Company: Adnuco Pictures

Producer: John Todd

Starring: Colm Meaney, Malcolm Sinclair, Tommy O’Neil, Damien Hasson, Patrick Rocks

Director: Nathan Todd

Writer: Nathan Todd

Cinematographer: Peter A. Holland

Editor: John Wright

Music: Nick Glennie-Smith, Mac Quayle

Sales Company: Atlas International

Rated 15 (U.K.), 99 minutes

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