Purely Belter Review
The tail end of the 2000 saw two British films set in the Northeast, Purely Belter and Billy Elliot. If asked most people would only remember Billy Elliot as Purely Belter was pretty much ignored by all. This was despite the fact that Mark Herman has the better track record. His previous films Brassed Off and Little Voice were hits both critically and commercially. I make no apology for the comparisons with Billy Elliot in this review. The films are set in the same area, if not the same time and both try to relate a story of escape. I also have to admit to a certain amount of bias towards the film as I am a huge Newcastle fan and my family come from there.
Adapted from a book by Jonathon Tulloch, Purely Belter is a comedy set in the lower class areas of Newcastle where sharp kids like Gerry (Chris Beattie) dream of escape. He and Sewell (Greg McLane) break into houses, shoplift and scam to buy drugs and get by. Then Gerry decides he wants season tickets to see Newcastle United, this is their escape route. This dream is a common one for kids from that area. Football is their one passion and seeing Newcastle play would provide time away from a depressing reality. So they quit the drugs and booze to try and raise money to fulfil their ambitions. They collect scrap, beg, baby sit and walk dogs with various and humorous results. It’s not enough though, so they turn to shoplifting and housebreaking. The scams come thick and fast and the money accumulates.
In the midst of all this is a myriad of subplots. Gerry is bribed by a social worker to go to school, where he has to deal with a particularly obnoxious teacher (Kevin Whately). Sewell falls in love with a girl who is involved with an ice hockey player. Gerry’s family has to move several times to evade their father (Tim Healy) who beats and steals from them. Rusty the dog joins our heroes, which means the lads have to evade his rightful owner. Add to this a meeting with Alan Shearer and the ever-present Angel of the North and you have a varied and entertaining mix.
Having just read my summary of the plot it doesn’t seem to have a lot of comedic possibilities. But despite this it is a very funny film. This seems to be a trademark of Mark Herman’s films (apart from Blame it on the Bellboy!). The trick here is that the humour is interwoven with the harsh realities of their lives. Billy Elliot on the other hand is the opposite and never hesitates to push the social commentary to the forefront. In this case less is more and Purely Belter wins out by not being Hollywoodised in this way. The bittersweet nature of the film is in equal parts both laugh out loud funny and very moving. Sometimes the director depends on tricks a little too often, while the ending is rushed and a bit of a copout. Mark Herman had some trouble with this as the book has a very different ending that wouldn’t really have worked on film.
The director’s use of imagery and shot composition is remarkable. The variation in pace and energy is a breath of fresh air. One minute there are quiet sections with slow reveals and pans, at others the fast cutting drives the action along. The North East landscape is shot for the most part in a very dour and muted way. The phrase “It’s grim up North” has never seemed more appropriate. Despite this certain key scenes have vibrant colours to reflect the mood of the main characters. The use of a wide range of locations gives the film a sense of breadth and depth. We see more here than just inner city Newcastle. We see a community and it’s surroundings, which provide a pleasant change from always viewing the North East as one big slum.
Acting-wise the main protagonists acquit themselves remarkably well. Both are newcomers to film, having only done theatre work before this. Their conversation about the Everything’s A Pound shop is hilarious and shows excellent comic timing. My only criticism is that both boys have quite obvious (to me anyway) Sunderland accents that make certain scenes a little odd (The one at the Sunderland ground especially). Admittedly you’d only know this if you live in, or come from the area. The rest of the cast are excellent. Tim Healy puts in a frightening performance that casts a shadow over Gerry’s family for the majority of the film. Kevin Whately is a nasty piece of work, making Gerry’s school life hell. All the actors portray their characters well and manage to steer clear of cliché (most of the time).
This is a great film, not just because it’s a realistic gritty Northern film. It is a great film because it makes you laugh and it makes you cry. You never lose sympathy for the main protagonists even when they are breaking the law. A comedy that can touch you emotionally in a subtle way is a rare thing and should be applauded.
This is the first disc I have seen produced by VCI so I had no idea what to expect. For the most part it’s an accomplished disc. Presentation is average with some functional and easy to navigate menus. 17 chapters is just adequate given the 94-minute running time, however the last chapter is not selectable from the scene access menu which is odd.
The picture is presented in its original anamorphic 1.85:1 ratio. It’s a very clean print, as you’d expect from a modern film. The colour seems very accurate; it is muted in places and vibrant in others. Black level is excellent and no detail is lost in the darker scenes. There are no compression artefacts that I could spot which is unusual as I am very picky about that sort of thing. There is a certain amount of grain but given the feel of the film I assume this is intentional and accurately reflects the director’s vision.
Sound-wise we have a very solid DD5.1 mix here. Dialogue is clear even in the noisy scenes. However, there is very little channel separation in any of the scenes and the rears are really only used when the music kicks in. This type of film doesn’t really need a lively mix and I was perfectly happy with the sound of the film. It should be noted that there is an audio description track on this disc. I have never come across this but it would indispensable to those who are visually impaired as it describes all the visual elements of the film. Subtitles are also present for the hard of hearing. Be warned though as they are written in the Geordie dialect and it’s far harder to read it than listen to it.
On the face of it this disc seems to have a good selection of extras. Don’t be deceived though as the extras are a little misleading in this case. We have a 5-minute featurette, which is the usual promo puff piece. We also have 8-minutes of cast and crew interviews, unfortunately a lot of these are lifted from the featurette. There is also an “on location” section that has 5-minutes of behind the scenes footage. Again a lot of these pieces are identical to ones in the featurette and the rest are inconsequential and mundane shots of people milling about. The trailer and TV spots are as exciting as they ever are i.e. not very.
The last extra is the best, a director’s commentary. Mark Herman is joined by someone who prompts him and asks him pertinent questions about each scene. Neither of them introduces themselves so I haven’t a clue who the “prompter” is. Despite this it’s a very good commentary. Mark Herman gives us a lot of information on the scenes, the actors and the thoughts behind the film itself. There are very few silences and a lot of ground is covered.
The film is funny, emotive and deserved better than it got on release. The disc is excellent with a great transfer and a good solid sound mix. The extras are a little disappointing in places but they are rescued by a good director’s commentary. Personally I wouldn’t hesitate to buy this film. The rest of you need to consider how much you like gritty British comedies. Any fan of Brassed Off and Little Voice shouldn’t hesitate to give this a try. I prefer this to Billy Elliot and it’ll be watched and enjoyed many times.