For decades, British films have derived their distinctive national flavour from a play-off between the extreme muckiness of everyday, working class life and the dreams to which individuals aspire. This 'standing in the gutter and looking at the stars' mentality has produced some fine films (such as Letter to Brezhnev, 1985) and, especially lately, many dire ones.
British cinema doesn't come much worse than Purely Belter. There is not a single situation or sentiment in this movie that cannot be predicted once the opening scenes have laid out the familiar turf.
Gerry (Chris Beattie) and his dim mate, Sewell (Greg McLane), are two poor lads who dream of owning season tickets to the football. Every card is stacked against them – fickle friends, oppressive institutions, broken homes, lack of education. They slide into petty theft and, of course, make a hash of it.
In the era of Brassed Off (1996) – an early hit from this director – and Billy Elliot (2000), we can guess that, no matter the obstacles placed in the way of these charmless chaps, hope is never entirely lost.
All the standard dualities are shoved on screen and moved mechanically through their paces. There is a bad, insensitive teacher and a good, caring one. A lovely, battling mother and a vicious, manipulative father. A son who tries to better himself and a sister who slides into the underworld of the streets.
Meanwhile, there is the usual overkill on working class kitsch – which is probably meant to be an affectionate homage on the film's part – and the heavy irony of a song such as John Lennon's "Happy Xmas (War is Over)" accompanying a parade of tawdry carousing.
This stale, talky, witless movie is written and directed by Mark Herman; it is even more excruciating than his previous effort, Little Voice (1998). Herman aims for what is essentially a gritty, low budget, vulgar version of Spielberg's dreams-can-come-true screen fantasy. The uplift such tales can provide is directly proportionate to the degree in which they involve us in the pain and difficulty of normal lives.
But Herman's eye is so intensely fixed on the prize of a happy (or at least bittersweet) ending that he can only evoke such realities in the most facile and opportunistic way.
© Adrian Martin October 2001