Northern Ireland on Screen

Paul Byrne takes a look at the representation of Northern Ireland on the big screen

It’s grim up North? Well, not always, as ‘Good Vibrations’ proved. As ‘A Belfast Story’ and ‘Black Ice’ hits cinemas this month, Paul Byrne takes a look at the north on screen.

Over the decades, our neighbours up north have had to deal with many unspeakable horrors. I’m thinking of Simple Minds and their 1989 #1 hit ‘Belfast Child’. I’m thinking of ‘Belfast (Penguins And Cats)’ by Katie Melua, ‘Hang The IRA’ by Skullhead, ‘Belfast’ by Boney M and the entire works of Daniel O’Donnell. Whatever about music’s contribution to the Troubles, it’s been cinema that has had the most to say about our friends and neighbours up north
From 1947’s ‘Odd Man Out’ to 2004’s ‘Omagh’, from 1960’s ‘A Terrible Beauty’ to more recent offerings such as ‘Fifty Dead Men Walking’ (2008), ‘Five Minutes Of Heaven’ (2009) and ‘Shadow Dancer’ (2012), filmmakers have been drawn to this volatile Valhalla and its seemingly bottomless pit of vicious, vainglorious and very occasionally victorious stories.

Amidst all the harrowing true-life tales and hollow victories though, some filmmakers have found room for lighter moments amidst all the dark confusion.
When the eponymous little Catholic ginger nut in 2005’s ‘Mickybo And Me’ emerges gleefully from a freshly-bombed building to show his new Protestant best friend some still-smoking treasure, he promptly removes and throws away the fancy ring and pockets the severed finger that hosted it.
In 2000’s ‘An Everlasting Piece’, the main concern of the protagonists was the toupee, not the Troubles. A year earlier, ‘The Most Fertile Man In Ireland’ was all about spunk, not self-propelled 155mm howitzers.

Dark day’s journey into a northern night were also far from being the primary plot devices for other such Belfast-set films as ‘Mad About Mambo’ (2000), ‘Man About Dog’ (2004) and ‘Cherrybomb’ (2009). Perhaps the finest film to tackle the Troubles with not only a head and a heart but a funnybone too is ‘Good Vibrations’, Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn’s manic pop thrill of a movie charting the musical misadventures of real-life rock rapscallion Terri Hooley. In keeping with the wild, music-loving huggy bear at the centre of ‘Good Vibrations’, D’Sa and Leyburn cheekily and cheerfully captured a dreamer caught up in a nightmare, trying to bring vinyl salvation to a nation under siege mentality.

Naturally, given how many times Irish films have promised much and delivered sweet FA, ‘Good Vibrations’ got far more glowing reviews than it did bums on seats. Now out on DVD, its reputation – and gross – can only grow and grow, but the film’s failure at the Irish box-office reflects an unhealthy relationship Irish cinema-goers have with Irish cinema.

The simple truth is, Irish films, whether northern, eastern, western or southern, whether dealing with the Troubles, an alcoholic single father or an errant donkey, tend to be largely ignored by Irish cinemagoers. And that’s because Irish films, whether northern, eastern, western or southern, are rarely a cinematic delight. When it comes to our homegrown multiplex assaults, the great unwatched are generally unwatchable.
Take a look – or don’t, as the case may be – at ‘Black Ice’, a lowbudget Irish drama made by a spunky young collective up north. Jane McGrath plays prodigal daughter Alice, returning to her small border town for a funeral that forces her to revisit her late night wild rides with local bad boy Jimmy (Killian Scott), their clandestine plans to escape these dull, dead-end badlands playing out like a boy racer public service TV ad that just got out of hand. This film is a Ford Fiesta with tinted windows, writing cheques it can’t cash.

It’s The Slow & The Spurious, and, for some strange reason, the whole thing appears to have been shot through a net curtain. Which may be a nod to how the Irish view the outside world.

Also out this month is ‘A Belfast Story’, a title that’s hardly going to cause any cinema queue crushes in this country. Or any other. Written and directed by Nathan Todd (a mechanical engineer making his film debut), and headlined by the often reliable Colm Meaney. There’s little doubt that Nathan and Colm have a battle on their hands when it comes to getting Irish people to part with their hard-earned dole money for yet another Troubles-set film.
In the meantime, you should stop whatever useless thing you are doing right now and go buy ‘Good Vibrations’. Twice. Truly great Irish films are rare. They deserve our love.

BLACK ICE and A BELFAST STORY play on Irish screens from Sept 20th

Words: Paul Byrne