This "football film" tries to be topical and timely but sells its cast terribly short
In analysing James Erskine's Shooting For Socrates, one has to look beyond what the film tries to do and ask why they even tried to do it to begin with. What we have here is a distinctly lightweight "historical" drama that strives for social relevance but ends up striking the wrong note on four accounts. It's a rags to riches, father and son, football and Troubles casserole that leaves either a bland or bad after taste, with a poorly thought through plot that does no justice to the cast's quality.
Set in mid-1980s Belfast and Mexico - although you wouldn't think it, given the sightings of the Hilton hotel and BT tower in the film - Shooting For Socrates tells the story of nine-year-old Tommy (Art Parkinson) growing up in a troubled neighbourhood with only his burgeoning football fandom and his wise father, Arthur (Richard Dormer), to guide and enlighten him amidst violence. Meanwhile, the Northern Ireland national team, under Billy Bingham (John Hannah), have qualified for the World Cup in Mexico, and are facing the prospect of taking on the world's best, among them a Brazil side featuring the philosophical Socrates (Sergio Mur).
Arguably, Shooting For Socrates could be much about a group of football players gunning for Socrates on the pitch as a group of terrorists focusing their lives on what they perceive Socrates' words to mean. But the film never develops this theme. Instead, the strand of young David Campbell (Nico Mirallegro, just about mastering the accent) trying to make his mark in the Northern Ireland squad is thrown in, leaving us with a film that demands more than its consciously undemanding script is willing to deal with.
While I am all for films that don't suppress their actors into their plots, that don't squeeze the life out of characters for the sake of narrative advancement and give their casts time to breathe, one should not encourage stories that give the actors almost nothing to work with. Erskine's screenplay, co-written with playwright Marie Jones, is not packed with unreasonable or ridiculous developments, but as an alternative, it offers nothing that we haven't seen before, or no one that we can care about. It comes across as clichéd, platitudinous and heavy-handed (even the death of team captain Sammy McIlroy's mother feels like a Dead Relative Ex Machina rather than the poignant moment it should be), with unconvincing recreations of football matches that capture neither the intimacy of drama nor the epic spectacle of a sporting showcase.
With the human touch of a Ken Loach or a pre-Les Misérables Tom Hooper, Erskine could have given us compelling drama in the mould of Looking For Eric or The Damned United, both of which are miles better than this hodgepodge. Instead, he skims over character in a narrative that already sells its talented cast short - and that's not merely troublesome. It's fatal. The brilliant Richard Dormer is utterly wasted, as is Bronagh Gallagher as his stereotypically stressed out wife. Fine actor though John Hannah is, his Billy Bingham is a blank slate with the wrong accent, and Nico Mirallegro fares little better, despite his best efforts. Fortunately Conleth Hill (Game Of Thrones) and Paul Kennedy (Made In Belfast) are on hand to lend humour and humanity to Jackie Fullerton and Pat Jennings respectively, at least as often as the film will let them.
Shooting For Socrates wants to be about the unifying effect of The Beautiful Game in not-so-beautiful times, but doesn't feel like it's about anything. Except, that is, a cynically calculated attempt to capitalise on the goodwill emerging from Northern Ireland's almost certain qualification for a major tournament again, exactly three decades later.