The trouble with Believe is that, unless you are ten years old or under, which I’m assuming you are not, you won’t believe. Not for a second. Not for a minute. Not a word of it. This doesn’t see itself as a children’s film and isn’t being marketed as a children’s film, which means I can’t be kind and generous about it, as I might be about an actual children’s film, if I were in a charitable mood. (Rare, but it can happen. Or at least I think it did happen, once.)
The film had been ‘inspired by actual events’, or so I’d read, and follows Sir Matt Busby, the legendary Manchester United manager, coming out of retirement to coach a group of young working-class lads. From this, I’d assumed it would be one of those smart, Peter Morgan-style scripts that ditches the usual biopic narrative and instead captures the essence of someone’s character by honing in on a particular period of their life. I was thinking The Damned United, probably. I’d also noted it stars Brian Cox and Anne Reid, which seemed like some kind of Kitemark of quality and, as it happens, Cox and Reid are quite the best thing about this, but that doesn’t count for much (she says, uncharitably. Obviously, not in the mood today. It’s hot).
Set in 1984, in Manchester, the film opens when Busby (Cox) has his wallet lifted by a young scamp, Georgie (Jack Smith), whom he is minded to hand over to the police, but what’s this? The boy has a real talent for football? So Busby, who is finding retirement tedious, sets about coaching him and his friends to compete in an under-12s tournament. Busby, it transpires, is still haunted by the ‘Busby Babes’, the young Manchester United players killed in the Munich air disaster of 1958, and feels a need to bring on these boys; to ‘finish that work’. (Bit weird, this need, considering he did eventually build a new championship-winning team, bringing on other boys aplenty, but there you are.) Busby survived the crash, but is still bedevilled by flashbacks which see him buckled into a plane seat, wreckage all around, snow falling; snow as horribly fake as all this feels.
Meanwhile, there is an obstacle on the footballing front. Georgie’s mother (Natascha McElhone) wants her son to focus on getting a scholarship to the posh boys’ private school. McElhone has many gifts, I know, but convincing as a northern working-class mum is not among them, as she always looks as if she’s just come from shopping in Chelsea, may try Knightsbridge this afternoon. Or Mayfair. But the real questions are: will Georgie put his schooling first, or his football? What if the entrance exam and the tournament final are scheduled for the same afternoon? No, come on. What are the chances of that?
Directed by David Scheinmann, who is predominantly a commercial director (movie videos; advertising) this lacks any grit or true feeling. It may think it’s This Is England, with its Smiths soundtrack, but, instead, it’s a pile-up of clichés and easy sentiment and predictable plot twists that will try your patience and then, every ten minutes or so, we all have to stop, dead, so Busby can give one of his speeches about ‘belief’ and ‘dreams’. The message is straight from The X Factor: believe hard enough, and your dreams will come true, which is patently nonsense anyhow. I’ve always believed, quite strongly, that I’d end up living in one of those lovely Georgian houses overlooking the ponds on Hampstead Heath, but am now realising that belief is all very well, but it won’t ever be quite as good as, say, £30 million, cash.
Cox and Reid are, as I said, the best things about this, by far. Cox is nicely understated and does his utmost to hold back the tide of sentiment, until the material defeats him. Reid, as Mrs Busby, is required to do little more than look at her husband in a fond and kindly manner, although, if you have to have someone looking at her husband in a fond and kindly matter, better Reid than anyone else, I suppose. More problematic is Toby Stephens as Dr Farquar, the teacher from the posh school, who decides to offer Georgie tutoring, and who is played as camp farce. It’s as if he’s been airlifted in from another film altogether. Odd.
This is essentially a piece of Roy of the Rovers whimsy and as for ‘inspired by actual events’ I’ve tried to look into this, out of curiosity — seriously? Sir Matt Busby coached a group of young boys in his retirement? — but have got nowhere. All I can find is the director saying that when he was first approached with this story by two Italian writers, these writers ‘knew one of Matt’s oldest friends and his godson’. But whether any of this happened or not, the point is it just doesn’t feel rooted in the real, and you simply won’t believe. Unless you are ten or under. Seven. That’s probably the ideal age. (Nope, not charitable at all today. Sorry.)