Posted in: Film– June 11, 2012
Hats off to the organisers of the Belfast Film Festival.
This year’s programme got off to a rip roaring start with two world premiere screenings of the Terri Hooley biopic ‘Good Vibrations’ which have given the movie one hell of a launch as it tours the international film festival circuit.
A screening of James Marsh’s ‘Shadow Dancer’ only enhanced its reputation at the Sundance and Berlin Film Festivals as a skilfully made, well acted and cleverly told espionage thriller about moles operating within the Provisional IRA at the tail end of the Troubles.
The world premiere of Kieron J Walsh’s Derry-set drama ‘Jump’ also generated positive buzz and there were well received events honouring two of Belfast’s finest screen actors, Stephen Rea and James Ellis and a memorable series of screenings in the High Court of classic legal movies.
The festival drew to a close at the Waterfront last night with the European premiere of Terry George’s post-Troubles comic caper, ‘Whole Lotta Sole’ – his eagerly awaited follow-up to the Academy Award winning short film ‘The Shore’.
Once again, it was a screening that will live long in the memory of a city whose film industry is booming and growing more and more confident.
Compered by outgoing film festival chair Brian Henry Martin, there were good humoured and hugely optimstic speeches from the Culture Minister Caral ni Chuilin and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, who raised eyebrows when he declared himself a “royalist” (Mr McGuinness qualified this by saying he was only a royalist when it came to films and television shows shot in Northern Ireland like the Natalie Portman movie ‘Your Highness’ and HBO’s ‘Game of Thrones’).
But the night belonged to Terry George and his cast, with lead actor Brendan Fraser flying in specially from the US to attend the screening and joining David O’Hara, Martin McCann, Conleth Hill, Marie Jones, Frankie McCafferty and the singer Foy Vance who performed two songs onstage on a slightly out of tune acoustic guitar.
‘Whole Lotta Sole’ tells the story of the hapless Jimbo Regan (Martin McCann), up to his neck in gambling debt, struggling to support his wife and baby and owing money to a brutal ex-paramilitary turned gangster, Douglas ‘Mad Dog’ Flynn (David O’Hara).
Jimbo is driven to desperate measures when the childless Flynn threatens to take his baby son in return for wiping out his debt and he decides to get the money he owes the gangster by robbing St George’s fish market on a Friday.
But it all goes comically wrong, with Jimbo fleeing with a bag containing little cash and, unbeknown to him, evidence which could incriminate Flynn.
Lumbered with his baby, he heads for an antique shop where an American, who might or might not be his dad, Joe Maguire (Brendan Fraser) is working.
Maguire has had his own troubles with gangsters in Boston and panics believing Jimbo has been hired to assassinate him.
This sets in chain a siege in the antique shop with Jimbo and Joe holed up inside with the baby, a charming Ethiopian shop keeper Sophie (Ya Ya da Costa), two Traveller children, a manky settee and the bag which might just hold the key to their safety.
Outside the shop, fried food connoisseur and PSNI Detective Inspector, Weller (Colm Meaney) struggles to make sense of a confused siege situation and also to keep the SAS, his community policeman son (Michael Legge), the Travellers and Mad Dog Flynn at bay.
‘Whole Lotta Sole’ is the first real post-Troubles comedy to emerge out of Northern Ireland and confirms Terry George’s reputation as a versatile filmmaker.
A twice Oscar nominated screenwriter, George initially burst into the movie business as a dramatist with a penchant for heavy themes with his acclaimed script for ‘In the Name of the Father’. He followed that up with his directorial debut, the hunger strike movie, ‘Some Mother’s Son’ starring Helen Mirren and Fionnula Flanagan and the lauded Rwandan genocide film, ‘Hotel Rwanda’ with Don Cheadle and Sophie Okenodo.
After the moody US drama ‘Reservation Road’ and a well received TV police series ‘The District’, he returned to Northern Ireland to make ‘The Shore’ which hinted at a change of tone with lighter material.
And while ‘Whole Lotta Sole’ confirms this gear shift, the humour has a lot more bite, is at times quite black and is very Northern Irish.
And so we have a hapless robber heading to the fish market in an old man’s motability car, brandishing a forgotten IRA machine gun he does not know how to use and then having to wheel his baby around in his pram as he makes his getaway.
The movie rolls along at a knockabout pace, boosted by a sharply written screenplay by George and Thomas Gallagher and some fine acting.
Brendan Fraser is solid in the anchor role as Joe, while Colm Meaney turns in a Northern Ireland variation of Dessie Curley from ‘The Snapper’ and David O’Hara hits the right tone as the menacing Flynn.
There are strong supporting turns too from Ya Ya Da Costa, Michael Legge as Randy, Marie Jones as Ma Flynn and Frankie McCafferty as a Traveller. There is also a very funny cameo from Conleth Hill as an eyewitness to the start of the siege.
However the real star of the show is Martin McCann. As the twitchy, clumsy, out of his depth Jimbo, he has to stretch himself more than the rest of the cast and strikes the right balance between slapstick and vulnerability, without veering into sentimentality.
George and Gallagher’s screenplay reaches for a similar comic tone as a Roddy Doyle or Colin Bateman novel or a Martin McDonagh play. The movie also recalls irreverent Irish comedies such as Conor McPherson’s ‘I Went Down’, Martin McDonagh’s ‘In Bruges’, John Michael McDonagh’s ‘The Guard’ and Ian Fitzgibbon’s ‘Perrier’s Bounty’.
The director, cast and crew seem to be enjoying themselves and there are some enjoyable and clever post-Troubles riffs on ‘Some Mother Son’ including a cameo from Tom Hollander as a slightly different British Government mandarin to the one he played in the hunger strike film.
Cinemagoers in Northern Ireland will get a kick out of the use of locations in Belfast and Downpatrick in the movie and the Police Service of Northern Ireland will no doubt be happy at the way it is portrayed.
However the film also benefits from intelligent editing by Nick Emerson, Des Whelan’s assured cinematography and decent original music from singer-songwriter, Foy Vance who plays a busker.
‘Whole Lotta Sole’ comes across as a real labour of love. It is the work of a director on top of his game and clearly enjoying making movies in his native land.
It is a confident movie, made on a modest £5 million budget, which should do well at the box office on both sides of the Irish border and with ex-pat audiences.
However the real test will be whether this very Irish and, in particular, very Northern Irish brand of humour can translate to international audiences and a lot may depend on how it is marketed.
If movies like ‘Whole Lotta Sole’ and ‘Good Vibrations’ can reach beyond the usual Irish and Northern Irish demographic, it could bode well for Northern Ireland’s burgeoning film industry and that will inevitably mean a whole lotta opportunities for local filmmakers.