Robert J.E. Simpson was at this year’s Belfast Film Festival (16 -25 April) and had a chance to see Shooting for Socrates, which takes audiences back to the heady days of Mexico 1986 when Northern Ireland met the mighty Brazil in the World Cup finals. The film went on general release in Northern Ireland and selected cinemas in Ireland from 5th June.
This year’s Belfast Film Festival has offered a healthy selection of home-grown fare, with local films opening and closing proceedings. And they’ve squeezed in a star-studded gala event in the vast cavern of the Waterfront Hall for footballing feature Shooting for Socrates.
We’re fond of our image as underdogs, here in NI. We love the idea that we have to fight to get anywhere and when we’re beat we’re telling others that we tried. In that context comes the story of the 1986 Football World Cup squad from Northern Ireland – an unlikely collection of local lads making their mark, who defy expectation and find themselves in the finals and a legendary match against the unflappable Brazil.
If you’re one of us you’ll know the line before you know the story “We’re not Brazil, we’re Northern Ireland!” and you may have seen the slogan daubed over a mural or two. Even with my luddite knowledge of football I am familiar with the chant and the aspirational thrust of ‘We didn’t win the World Cup, but we got to play in the finals’. In the following 19 years this wee country has failed to replicate that near-success.
And so director James Erskine teamed up with local playwright Marie Jones to bring the tale to the big screen. Perhaps hoping for a Cool Runnings-type success, the narrative is presented as a broad comedy, gathering a group of boisterous footballers for an unlikely place on the global stage.
The audience at the premiere laughed haughtily, spurred on by the rousing on-stage prelude hosted by critic Brian Henry Martin, which saw several stars of the film, local broadcasting icon Jackie Fullerton and most of the surviving members of the 1986 Northern Irish World Cup squad hoisting aloft the actual World Cup – a privilege denied following their disastrous Mexican campaign. If one was to buy the hype of the evening, Shooting for Socrates is another smash hit. But the gathering together of so many football supporters and the first ever Irish appearance of the World Cup, the presence of some local legends, and overwhelming sense of national pride does tend to cloud judgement. Hype hides all manner of sins.
Jackie Fullerton reunited with most of the 1986 Northern Irish World Cup squad at the Belfast premiere of Shooting for Socrates.
Socrates gives us Northern Ireland in the 1980s. A desolate place, with rioting and army presence on the streets. The full force of the Troubles provides a contrast to the unification and peace of the football scenes. In this instance its unfortunate that Belfast has changed so much in the ensuing years. Some archive footage of the period is combined with contemporary scenes – scenes which lay bare the modern city – PVC doors, redeveloped streets, change murals, an empty and forlorn Harland and Wolff, a reshaped Belfast waterfront. To the outsider, fine (which of course director Erskine is), but to those of us from here, it lacks authenticity – as alien as the prospect of Northern Ireland achieving a World Cup win. Action moves between southern Ireland, Northern Ireland, England, New Mexico and Mexico. Frequent onscreen captions remind us just how confusing the action change is.
John Hannah plays Belfast-born manager Billy Bingham with Hannah’s Scottish accent. No attempt is made at veracity – he doesn’t look like or sound like him. So Bingham’s identification as a local lad throughout don’t fit (and even I as a non-football fan remember him and his strange hybrid tones and jolly appearance). One wonders if Erskine had somehow confused Bingham with Jack Charlton – the Englishman who managed the Republic of Ireland team during the same period?
The team themselves are played with a comedy shtick that wouldn’t go amiss in a lacklustre Britcom of the 1970s. When emotion threatens to step in, mirth and drinking seem to be the only solution: the sudden death of one player’s mother should offer a warm embrace, some team tenderness, instead it’s a pub session and no pay-off. There’s also two over-the-top fans who screech their way to Mexico – seemingly the only two Northern Irish fans to make the pilgrimage. Well, them and Jackie Fullerton…
Jackie Fullerton interviews Conleth Hill at the Belfast premiere of Shooting for Socrates
Conleth Hill channels Jackie Fullerton as an over-the-top, rather camp, object of ridicule. Fullerton’s presence at the screening does rather suggest he’s in on the act. But this is Fullerton as pantomime – ‘Jackie Full-of-himself’ as one wag suggests. He’s drinking, smoking, and helicopter-riding his way into every scene, becoming an intricate part of the Northern Irish propaganda wagon. Hill does steal all the laughs as the broadcaster, but the portrayal does suggest that maybe the rest of the cast needed to be more exaggerated too.
The titular Socrates, a player for Brazil, is a philosophical bundle of nonsense and good looks.
The action is confusing, particularly to those who have no knowledge of the story or of the game itself. The direction is hit and miss. The football scenes themselves lack any tension or drama. We see Bingham teaching his squad to keep the ball in play among themselves so if the Brazilians can’t get the ball, they can’t score – and yet then we see the ball being given away with ease during the actual matches – matches during which there is very little coverage of crowd extras.
In between the silliness a rather tender story is played out back in Belfast between a father (Richard Dormer) and his nine-year old son, Tommy (the promising newcomer Art Parkinson). It is a story of understanding the conflict in Northern Ireland and the power of sport, but also of growing up and family. They move through troubled East Belfast and the stark landscape of Harland and Wolff’s cranes Samson and Goliath. These sequences are superior, handled with care and attention and some fine photography. As Tommy watches the game and becomes emotionally entangled with the fate of the team, he represents us back home, and it’s here the film’s heart lies (as evidenced by use of Parkinson and Dormer on current advertising materials). But as lovely as their story and performances are, they belong to an entirely different film and are secondary to the football squad’s antics.
Women are under-represented in the film. Bronagh Gallagher gives a fine-but-brief turn as Tommy’s mother. Lorraine Sass is Billy Bingham’s wife – supporting and mentoring her husband, but a little cold. The other women barely get a line or two of dialogue each, with one Mexican football fan reduced to a position of not understanding the Northern Irish fans. It seems to be arguing a view of women in football – they don’t understand it (Bronagh Gallagher’s character can’t wait to get out of the house while her family watch it on TV, though she does save Tommy a place in a club so they can watch the final together).
Praise though for the contemporary score and soundtrack including music by Snow Patrol, Wonder Villains and A Plastic Rose. It is fresh and vibrant, giving poignancy and power which almost drive through the cracks in the film itself.
L to R: Conleth Hill, Paul Kennedy, Art Parkinson, Marie Jones, James Erskine at the Belfast premiere of Shooting for Socrates
It’s likely that those without a knowledge of football, or Northern Ireland, will really ‘get’ Shooting for Socrates. It is an indulgence in celebrating runner-up status – the team look so disappointed it becomes impossible to buy the sentiment that the joy of the game is what should be celebrated. It’s a fusion of talents and an idea of a story that ultimately don’t work. A failed attempt at embracing failure.
Robert J.E. Simpson blogs about the arts on A Cultural Crisis