New to streaming and Blu-ray: Welcome to Northern Ireland pokes beneath Belfast's celebrated 'buzz'
Welcome to Northern Ireland (16+, 80mins) Drama/comedy. Starring: Steven Agnew, Laura Thompson, Karen Kinghan, Rob Wilson, Paul Mone, Jonathan Harden and Lucy McConnell. Director: Michael Macbroom. Available to rent or buy on Prime Video now.
THEY say you can never go home again: Johnny (Steven Agnew) discovers the good and the bad of this adage upon returning to his native Belfast after 20 years away in comedic indie drama Welcome To Northern Ireland.
The precise circumstances of Johnny's homecoming are never fully explained in writer/director/producer Michael Macbroom's film, but his single bag of possessions and already-open bottle of vodka suggest hard times.
Initially, Johnny marvels at Belfast's redeveloped city centre, enthusing about how "the place just seems to be buzzing now" a phrase that's parroted back to him by his temporary hosts, old friend Dave (Paul Mone) and wife Suzanne (Sarah Williamson), a little too eagerly. Either these people work for the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, or everyone is still trying hard to convince themselves that Belfast's new post-Troubles 'normality' is really permanent.
However, a local radio phone-in overheard in the background reveals good old fashioned intolerance is still very much alive despite the city's new hotels, shopping malls, myriad coffee shops and 'luxury' apartment complexes.
A chance encounter on the street with two tourists plants the seed of how Jonny might use his wealth of knowledge about the history of his home city to start a new life, while a meet-cute with a beguiling stranger, Amanda (Laura Thompson), hints at an even brighter future within reach.
Setting up as a tour guide requires an injection of funding: enter local entrepreneur, Jim (Rob Wilson), a quintessential 'man of good character' known to Dave and Suzanne via their church, who likes to bless every new business venture with a wee prayer. Never mind that the details of how things will be actually be run seem a bit hazy – sure with the Lord on their side, how can they fail?
Jonny proves a natural at both tour-guiding and romancing Amanda, who's hard at work with a cash-strapped charity helping women circumvent the north's out-dated abortion laws by taking them to England. While his no bull**** approach to informing tourists about the wanton destruction of Belfast's best built heritage by unscrupulous developers – a whole scene is pointedly focused on the arson at North Street Arcade – gives him a refreshing USP, Jim's 'woman on the ground' is less enthused.
Office manager/aspiring life coach Andrea (Karen Kingham) is a smiling assassin who's all about attracting corporate sponsorship to their endeavours – endeavours which Johnny and his co-worker Una (Sarah Tennyson) are still waiting to be paid for.
When Johnny's relationship with Amanda then takes an unexpected turn, it looks like Belfast's much-touted 'buzz' might not be enough to sustain them for much longer.
Welcome To Northern Ireland is fairly low stakes, but Michael Macbroom's mellow, character-driven drama benefits from its likeable leads and a pleasingly droll sense of humour – writers of local television sketch comedy could learn from the chucklesome scene where Johnny buys a second-hand car from a troubled soul (Jonathan Harden) – plus astute observations on the lesser-mentioned downsides to Belfast's frantic race from terrorism to tourism.
Well worth a watch.