Terry George has been my friend for more than 30 years. This is by way of fair warning: I can’t be absolutely objective about his wonderful new feature film, “Whole Lotta Sole.”
In addition, my parents were Belfast Catholics, each hurt into America in the 1920s by the iron religious bigotry of the city where they were born. When I was covering The Troubles in the 1960s, ’70s and 80s, I could still see my mother as a child, peering in fear from a darkened window on Madrid Street in the Short Strand.
Or my father angrily punching the air on Locan Street in the Lower Falls. Some things truly are a part of your DNA. Belfast is part of mine. It was central to my friendship with Terry.
But seeing his new movie for the second time made me wish that my parents had lived a bit longer. To see Martin McGuinness make Ian Paisley laugh. To see this movie by Terry George. To be reminded that even in terrible times, the craic in the North could ease the aching heart.
Whole Lotta Sole is a comedy, but like many fine comedies, its themes are serious.
The time is the present, 14 years since the Good Friday Agreement that ended organized fighting in the North (there have been sporadic outbreaks, of course, by various diehards on both sides of the ancient quarrel).
When the film opens, an American Celtic rock band named the Young Dubliners plays on the soundtrack. The song is “Weile Walla”, a song
both traditional and urban. We see Belfast. No smoke rises from burning buildings.
Very quickly, with great economy, the principals in the story take the stage. Young Jimbo Regan, played with many layers of anxiety and panic by Martin McCann, his gambling losses rising to 5000 pounds. He has an infant child at home. His debts are owed to the owner of the gambling joint, a spooky badass named Mad Dog Flynn (played with hard Belfast style by David O’Hara).
Mad Dog is clearly a veteran of the Troubles, but never mentions the things he did. He doesn’t have to. He wants something more than a united Ireland. He wants a baby for his wife. He can’t give her one. So he presents Jimbo with a plan to erase the gambling debts. A plan with a two-day deadline.
“I want yure wee son,” he says, in a voice heavy with menace.
We also meet Joe Maguire (Brendan Fraser), a youngish American from Boston who is running Maguire’s Antiques for the summer while a relative is off somewhere. As “the Yank”, he struggles with some of the baffling Belfast accents. We see his growing romance with Sophie (played by the beautiful YaYa DaCosta), an educated young black woman from Ethiopia, one of the new people immigrating to Belfast.
Finally, there is the police detective named Weller, (played with enormous conviction by Colm Meaney), a Protestant, a veteran of 30 years on the force. He is, of course, a veteran of the bad times. And he’s definitely Old School.
For breakfast, Weller loves bacon and eggs, swimming in fat. He believes the greatest health food ever devised by mankind is fish ‘n ‘chips. In his work as a top detective, he struggles with the new order of police affairs, the bureaucrats, the procedures. He has a son on the police force, too, a symbol of the New Belfast, who specializes in community relations. Reaching out to those on the margins, and to the poorer Catholics.
“You’re a policeman,” the father reminds him at one point. “Not a social worker.”
But in a quick series of events, the film enters its main phase, essentially a hostage crisis. In a city that was for so long a hostage to history, Jimbo decides to pull a robbery to get the money for Mad Dog, rather than lose his son or his life. He borrows an old Thompson sub-machine gun, hidden under a mattress by an ancient republican (perhaps my favorite minor character, played by James Greene) and, ah well, things start going wrong. Hey: it’s Belfast.
First of all, there is very little cash in the safe Jimbo is robbing. “Everybody uses debit cards now, son”, he is told.
There’s an accidental, panicky firing of the machine gun in the fish market called Whole Lotta Sole, which brings in the police. And then… don’t let me spoil the surprises.
Because this is a film by Terry George (who wrote the script with Thomas Gallagher), the movie feels absolutely authentic, physically and emotionally. The main location, where Maguire’s Antique shop is located, was filmed on Scotch St. in Downpatrick, 30 miles from Belfast. All others are in Belfast itself.
When we met in 1981 in Brooklyn, Terry was a recent graduate of the University of Long Kesh. But he wasn’t consumed by the struggle, didn’t believe that anyone owed him anything. He would laugh, and get on with his life.
This movie shows how well many, many people have gotten on with their lives. In Belfast, and a lot of other places too. For all of them, laughter is almost always part of the cure.
“Whole Lotta Sole” is touching without being maudlin; funny, without cheap vulgarity; charged with melancholy over youthful mistakes, while refusing to indulge in self-pity.
The film will have its world premiere this Saturday, April 21, in the Spotlight Series at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. For screening times go to www.tribecafilm.com/festival.