In Northern Ireland’s sporting history, one moment stands out.
As violence raged at home, Billy Bingham’s tight group of honest professionals set off for a World Cup. They withstood the sweltering cauldrons of a Latin summer and faced down a giant, emerging unscathed on the other side. For a small country, such feats were more than worthy of constant retellings.
Yes indeed, 1982 was glorious. Spain. Arconada. Armstrong. A 1-0 win and a place in the second round. But the story of that moment can wait.
What audiences must endure, instead, is James Erskine’s Shooting for Socrates, a chronicle of Mexico ’86, in which Northern Ireland scored two goals and earned a solitary point. That journey, seemingly, deserves a cinematic airing before the piffling exploits of four years prior.
To describe Shooting for Socrates as ill conceived would be to undersell its profound shortcomings. Insipid and less an ode to the beauty of football than a wet Wednesday evening at the Ballymena Showgrounds, Erskine’s picture displays occasional flickers of a heart, only for such spirit to be consumed by a malaise touting itself as something approximating light entertainment.
Both the director and co-screenwriter Marie Jones are not, it must be noted, wholly unfamiliar with their instant genre. Erskine’s One Night in Turin documented the epic battle between England and Germany at Italia ’90. Jones famously penned A Night in November, an extraordinary play capturing the organic nature of sport as a uniting force. Thus, it is all the more alarming that this latest trip into the milieu should be so abject.
Of all the faults that run through Shooting for Socrates from beginning to end, however, its most severe failing is one of believability. Quite simply, and in spite of its much heralded local flavouring, not a moment feels real.
That superficiality extends across both of the main storylines, the first of which revolves around mercurial youngster David Campbell (Nico Mirallegro), who is called up for the World Cup while still breaking into the first team at Nottingham Forest. What might have been a charming coming-of-age tale quickly becomes lost thanks to an uneven tone, drama, comedy and a dash of icky Norn Iron politics all jostling for position, largely without success. In spite of his own personal duel with that tricky Ulster accent, Mirallegro seems enthusiastic enough, yet his arc is so uninteresting, his character so artificial, that the significance of a debut against the mighty Brazilians — their titular captain included — delivers little by the end.
Richard Dormer’s salt-of-the-earth docker, Arthur, fares just as badly. With the team’s myriad qualifiers and group games as a backdrop, Dormer attempts to steer his cheeky pre-pubescent son, Tommy (Art Parkinson), past the pitfalls of life using Greek philosophy and football as his primary tools. Dormer and his onscreen wife (a chirpy Bronagh Gallagher) are left to feed on scraps. Both are fine actors but there is little they can do to stem the tide of hollow dialogue and limited dramatic tension plodding about them. Even the Troubles get off lightly, appearing as inconvenient outbursts of casual rioting rather than a bitter civil war tearing society asunder.
Only Conleth Hill, playing commentator Jackie Fullteron, emerges unscathed: wry, silver-tongued and bouffant. Hill’s class is obvious and next to him Gerard Jordan mines genuine laughs as loyal cameraman Albert Kirk.
Sadly, when the focus moves from this pair, Shooting for Socrates dies under the weight of its own obvious limitations. At one stage, Arthur and Tommy cycle along a road in the Belfast docklands, the very post-1986 Hilton hotel and BT tower firmly located in the centre of the screen. The Mexican excursion itself is almost as genuine as the period setting, Bingham (John Hannah, speaking in a Scottish brogue throughout) bringing to the world’s mightiest sporting event 11 players, one assistant and an assortment of PE gear.
Even the eponymous Socrates (Sergio Mur) is quickly forgotten. Viewed through crackling television images early on, with wide-eyed confusion, like some kind of chain-smoking, poetry-espousing alien, he is granted barely a moment in the flesh to reinforce the hype. As Brazil crush Northern Ireland in the least inspiring cinematic finale ever committed to film — a game recreated by the cast that looks more like a session of capable seven-aside than the real thing — our bearded genius is nowhere to be seen.
As a helpful caption informs the audience more than once, Campbell’s family live in a mysterious country called ‘Southern Ireland’, a nation that allegedly contains Donegal, the island’s northernmost county. Where is this place?
Perhaps Socrates can tell us. Does anyone know where he went?
A version of this article was first published here.