Review: Luke McManus’ ‘North Circular’

North Circular Review - 2022 Luke McManus Documentary Movie Film

Vague Visages’ North Circular review contains minor spoilers. Luke McManus’ 2022 documentary features Gemma Dunleavy, John Francis Flynn and Johnny Flynn. Check out the VV home page for more film reviews, along with cast/character summaries, streaming guides and complete soundtrack song listings.


The North Circular Road, as Luke McManus’ plaintive, melancholy and ultimately hopeful musical documentary North Circular details, stretches across a substantial section of Dublin’s north inner city — or, in local parlance, it’s a long aul’ road all the same. As a result, there’s a huge amount of life being lived within its confines, and the director does his best to capture every inch of it, from kids building a bonfire to trad sessions taking place in every available corner of a beloved local tavern. As a result, North Circular feels slightly unfocused at times, but this is likely intentional given how tough it is to nail down one definitive take on what it means to be from this area. 

North Circular opens with a woman singing acapella while sat in front of a pint of Guinness down the pub, everyone around her rapt with attention, which is perhaps one of the most authentically Irish images ever committed to film. McManus’ documentary is broken up by these musical interludes, which give further weight to the stories being told. North Circular covers an awful lot of ground, providing a potted history of the area alongside the necessary context for outsiders. There are discussions about young Irish men going off to fight for the British army and how that irrevocably damaged their psyches, interspersed with extremely telling footage of more young men playing cricket — a notably English sport through and through. 

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North Circular Review - 2022 Luke McManus Documentary Movie Film

Elsewhere in North Circular, a band leader complains about his grandchildren having no interest in following in his footsteps because they have “too many Pokemons” to contend with. Although it’s an often-morose journey, there are moments of levity, including when this especially avuncular participant acknowledges that “The hardest part about the pipes sometimes is listening to them.” Likewise, up-and-coming musician Gemma Dunleavy, whose sold-out hometown show in the iconic live venue The Academy bookends North Circular, proves to be just as delightful and knowledgeable an interviewee as she is a performer. Moreover, McManus wisely features the return of Olympic champion boxer Kellie Harrington, who is from the NCR. 

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North Circular is lensed in lovely, evocative monochrome with subtitles capturing the song lyrics while also demystifying the harsher accents for those without a natural ear for them. Crucially, any Irish language featured throughout isn’t translated, which is clearly a deliberate choice. But this also raises the question of whether outsiders will find something to cling on to in North Circular, aside from the wonderful music (Dunleavy’s “Up De Flats” is insanely catchy). McManus and his magnetic subjects have plenty to say about the horrors and pain of gentrification, with testimonials from local residents being driven out of their homes juxtaposed against footage of children playing next to the scaffolding for luxury apartments set to take the place of those very flats. 

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North Circular Review - 2022 Luke McManus Documentary Movie Film

There’s a topical edge to North Circular’s proceedings too, given the debate currently raging in the Irish press about whether Dublin City Centre is suddenly more dangerous than before, following the assault of an American tourist. The more cynical among us would point out that Irish people — and, especially lately, queer Irish people — deal with this kind of abuse on a regular basis and nobody seems to care until it happens to a tourist. Thus, the sentiment of one protestor, raging against the proposed destruction of a beloved watering hole so yet another fancy hotel can be erected in its place, is keenly felt. His sign reads simply, “FUCK OFF.” That could be taken as the general sentiment felt by many of the people featured in North Circular, as well as those just outside the frame. 

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North Circular Review - 2022 Luke McManus Documentary Movie Film

There are some real characters included in North Circular, not least the man who earns a few extra coins playing tin whistle on the high street and who casually informs the filmmakers that he watched his twin brother murder his father in cold blood. But the biggest character is the NCR itself, flaws and all, bursting with energy, vivacity and an indomitable spirit. While viewing North Circular, it’s tough not to get swept up in the belief that if we all just banded together, we could enact real change. And, if not, at least there’s some great music to be enjoyed along the way. 

North Circular premiered at DCTV’s Firehouse Cinema on July 28, 2023. 

Joey Keogh (@JoeyLDG) is a writer from Dublin, Ireland with an unhealthy appetite for horror movies and Judge Judy. In stark contrast with every other Irish person ever, she’s straight edge. Hello to Jason Isaacs.

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