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1 review, 15 user ratings

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Purely Belter
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by Andrew Howe

"It's cushdy, like."
4 stars

If an alien civilisation intercepted broadcasts of every British film released in the last few years, it would probably develop the impression that the island’s sole inhabitants are fast-talking criminals and a poverty-stricken underclass. Mark Herman certainly hasn’t gone out of his way to disprove this misconception, but as long as he’s strengthening the stereotype with films as appealing as Brassed Off it’s difficult to complain too loudly.

Purely Belter is set in Newcastle upon Tyne, the kind of city that cries out for close-ups of impassive workers trudging through imposing factory gates. Home to the black smoke of the steel industry, perpetually grey skies and impenetrable accents, one of the few sources of entertainment is cheering the local football team to victory. Enter Jerry (Chris Beattie) and Sewell (Greg McLane), a couple of teenage dirtbags who make a pact to “earn” the thousand pounds they need to purchase season tickets. How they go about doing so forms the bulk of the film, with the backing stories (Gerry’s family life, Sewell’s unexpected romance) providing sufficient pathos to prevent it from becoming just another light-hearted runaround.

This is Beattie and McLane’s first appearance before the camera, having been plucked from some 500 hopefuls by casting director Susie Figgis. Their natural, assured performances are the film’s greatest asset – neither of the characters are entirely likeable, but Beattie’s roguish charm and McLane’s loveable stupidity enable you to forgive them their less palatable activities. Pairing a streetwise ideas man with a big-hearted dingbat is a tried-and-tested routine in the history of animated double acts, and it works just as well in a live-action format, since Sewell’s obvious affection for his nearest and dearest (his father, his girlfriend and his dog) provide a pleasing contrast to Gerry’s controlled but turbulent emotions.

Our budding anti-heroes are surrounded by actors who’ve paid their dues on British television, and there’s nary a false note anywhere down the line. Charlie Hardwick appears to have smoked a few hundred packets of cigarettes to prepare for her role as Gerry’s worn-out mother, Kevin Whately plays the kind of teacher that would have Mr. Chips rolling in his grave, and Tim Healy’s memorable turn as Gerry’s abusive, alcoholic father proves that even a stereotype can be a work of art if you’ve got enough casual malice to back it up (not to mention a face that looks like it’s been used as a blacksmith’s anvil). None of the characters are particularly well-developed, but the actors evidently subscribe to the notion that if you’re only going to be on screen for five minutes you might as well give it everything you’ve got, and their determination to rise above their underwritten roles is central to the film’s success.

The film actually works better as a drama than a comedy, since most of the jokes are either uninspired, derivative or possessed of a callous indifference to accepted behaviour that makes laughing feel like a crime. You can forgive the film this failing, however, since there’s a surfeit of poignant scenes possessed of the resonance that comes from a writer who has first-hand experience with the subject matter (the script is based on a novel by Jonathan Tulloch, a teacher who was posted to areas that mirror the film’s setting). Every character gave up the hope of a better tomorrow a long time ago, so they take their pleasures where they find them and devote their dwindling energies to making it through the best they know how. Like Brassed Off, the film knows how to get under your guard and hit you where it hurts, and you may find yourself thinking about key scenes (Gerry recounting his first football match, Sewell’s sorrowful resignation at his father’s declining mental state, anything involving Tim Healy) for days afterwards.

Herman isn’t known for his visual flourishes, but his straight-shooting style is appropriate to the subject matter. The film also features a fine rock-based soundtrack (even if most of the artists are even more obscure than the film’s central performers), and while the dialogue is heavy with Newcastle-specific slang you’ll be fine once you get into the swing of things (“Purely Belter”, incidentally, is used to describe an experience that is too exquisite for lesser superlatives).

The film ultimately fails to scale the same heights as Brassed Off (though it’s an improvement on the rather slight Little Voice), but that’s simply because it can’t decide whether it wants to be a Mike Leigh drama or a showcase for backstreets British humour, and rare is the film that can adequately cover both bases. The characters lack the depth for the former, the vibrant dialogue required for the latter is largely absent, and the central storyline is just an excuse to explore a number of loosely-connected issues (though it does have a great ending).

The script’s weaknesses aren’t enough to scuttle the film, however, since the impeccable performances and moments of understated drama more than compensate for its flaws. The self-importance that plagues many films about life on the poverty line is absent for the duration, leaving us with an engaging, bittersweet ode to family, friends and football. It may not be the Holy Trinity, but Purely Belter might just convince you that it’s a religion worth considering.

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originally posted: 10/05/01 09:23:42
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User Comments

11/25/10 connor willis liked it!!!! 4 stars
7/05/09 Maddi this movie made me realise never to take for granted what u have 4 stars
2/15/09 Abz Brill film that'l have ya laughin n cryin, haway the toon!! 5 stars
7/17/08 Kev Side spitting one minute then lump in the throat next. Punches above it's budget. MUST SEE 5 stars
6/29/07 holly wicked film come on the toons 5 stars
10/26/06 JJ watch it, a brilliant film. 5 stars
9/25/06 Chris Nisbet A classic film 5 stars
11/04/05 Daveman Reminded me of A Beautiful Thing except the lead characters are loathesome and heterosexual 2 stars
3/13/05 Daan Nice mix, it presents some serious issues but isn't too depressing. 4 stars
1/04/04 Bill Howard Alreet Like 5 stars
2/19/02 Anthony Wright This film is one of the best I've seen in a while 5 stars
11/26/01 Paul Finnane funny, moving, unforgettable 5 stars
11/13/01 Geir Halvor Sollid Funny film - but the stripes should have been red instead of black. Ha'way the Lads 4 stars
11/12/01 Andrew Funny and emotional with great acting!!! 5 stars
10/13/01 matthew smith A very funny and honest film 4 stars
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