Purely Belter (15)
Strange titles often mean strange films, but this one is something of a misnomer – an odd moniker disguising a perfectly acceptable little movie which appears to have strayed from TV-land onto the big screen.
Purely Belter – Geordie slang for a jolly wheeze or fun time – is the third film from Mark Herman, a man rapidly becoming one of our most important home-grown filmmakers after the dual successes of Brassed Off and Little Voice.
Yet while it appears to boast the same gritty core as its predecessors – set in a Northern landscape, with peculiar yet endearing characters – it lacks bite and instead offers up a pair of likeable rascals like a couple of modern-day Artful Dodgers.
Based on Jonathan Tulloch’s book The Season Ticket, Purely Belter centres on the escapades of teenage truants, sneak thieves and Newcastle United fanatics Gerry and Sewell (Chris Beattie and Greg McLane) as they embark on a series of scams to raise enough cash to buy season tickets for their beloved Toon Army.
They beg, steal and borrow to fund their mission, variously tackling Gerry’s violent, drunken father (Tim Healy, gloriously nasty), a psychotic skinhead dog-lover and their hero Alan Shearer, playing himself.
Newcastle has never looked grimmer, and harks back to the Liverpool milieu which became such a memorable backdrop in Alan Bleasdale’s The Boys from the Blackstuff.
But where Bleasdale’s epic tale piled on the chilliness of unemployment, financial despair and madness, Purely Belter instead misses most of the edge and grit which made that, and films such as Kes, so seductive in the awfulness of their characters’ predicament.
Some of the wit and humour of Herman’s past movies has been captured, and the interplay between the two lads is above par, but this is way below Herman’s previous efforts primarily because, it seems, he has watered down the plot.
Yet Purely Belter exhibits much of the familiar urban territory of Brassed Off – Newcastle is as rainy, grimy and cold as it appeared 30 years ago in Get Carter – and the people, including dying mothers and comic rag and bone men, are as resilient as one expects they may be in real life.
Like Brassed Off it considers favourite Herman issues, including unemployment, lack of worth, family ties, ill health, drug addiction and incest, but the vein of humour eventually swamps all.
Perhaps Herman was frightened of going too far in the direction of Mike Leigh, or too far in the other direction and therefore imitating Ken Loach. Whatever his reasons, Purely Belter emerges as a hybrid, and an awkward one at that.
The two central characters are played by first-timers, and it shows. While Herman’s script offers gallons of opportunities for tragi-comic interplay, Beattie and McLane occasionally exhibit their weaknesses all too evidently on screen, and their double-act appears wooden.
Still, they are buoyed up by a great supporting cast which also includes Kevin Whately, Roy Hudd and the late Willie Ross, a superb character actor of the old school whose penultimate film this was. See it for him alone.
A worthwhile evening’s entertainment, but far from Herman’s best.