Belfast film review: Northern stars shine as Kenneth Branagh remembers The Troubles through innocent eyes
n the early 1980s, when a young Kenneth Branagh rose through the ranks of the RSC before starting his own business, he looked and sounded quintessentially English.
Dubbed the next Olivier, he played Prince Hal, popped Hamlet: his Received Pronunciation was impeccable, but once he spoke in a very different voice.
Born in Belfast in 1960, he left aged 18 following the Troubles, which devastated the Protestant working-class enclave his family hailed from.
In this lavish drama, filmed in crisp black and white, Branagh tries to evoke the fleeting intimacy of his Northern Irish childhood, which is about to be shattered by riots, bombs and inter-community gangsterism.
Released in America before Christmas, the film has already been criticized in some quarters for dodging the politics of the Northern conflict and going too soft.
But in Belfast, politics are out of place: it is not a drama about the Troubles, but a melancholy tale of a fairly idyllic urban childhood brutally interrupted by war. It’s a lush, poetic coming-of-age story that has more in common with films like François Truffaut’s. The 400 blows than he does with calWhere The crying game.
Buddy (the wonderful Jude Hill) is a lively nine-year-old who lives with his parents (Jamie Dornan, Caitriona Balfe) and older brother in the cramped but cozy streets of working-class North Belfast. Coming home from school, Buddy is greeted jovially by friends and neighbors, including Catholics, but all that is about to change.
Civil rights marches and a furious Orange State response have caused widespread unrest, and one afternoon a terrified Buddy cowers under the kitchen table with his mother while loyalist thugs burn cars and smash windows along their previously peaceful street.
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Their target is Catholic families, but as local UVF thug Billy Clanton (Colin Morgan) makes clear, “you’re either with us or against us.” Hardy bigotry has now become mandatory, which is bad news for Buddy’s father, an apolitical charmer.
And that’s bad news for the family in general, because as the Troubles escalate and British troops arrive, Belfast is starting to look like a bad place to raise a child.
Buddy’s father comes and goes from construction sites in the south of England and now decides that a better life awaits them all in Blighty. His wife is not so convinced, but will eventually bow to the inevitable.
However, when they sit their boys down to tell them they could leave, Buddy is absolutely devastated. Belfast is his universe and besides, he fell in love with a pretty Catholic girl who attends his school.
Tying Buddy to the town are his grandparents (Judi Dench, Ciarán Hinds), a salty, loving couple full of dry jokes and Norse lore. But if he leaves for England, he will lose them too.
From the first images, Branagh makes it clear that this is a deeply personal film, a moving ode to a time lost, both for Belfast and for himself.
In these early, flowing scenes, he illustrates how the spirit and warmth of everyday life has been swallowed up by mistrust and hatred. Buddy’s attempts to understand sectarian differences, meanwhile, are hilarious. He is very attracted, for example, to the notion of confession, which allows you to do whatever you want and then be forgiven.
His father specifies: “I have nothing against the Catholics, he says, but it is a religion of fear. Right after that, Branagh cuts to a Bible-pounding Protestant preacher filling Buddy’s head with terrifying images of damnation. Fear, it seems, is a non-denominational currency.
Using some of Van Morrison’s most upbeat songs as a backdrop, Branagh creates a moving and deliberately rose-tinted evocation of a lost era. The black-and-white images deepen the joy and pain on his characters’ faces: it’s only when Buddy goes to the movies that the screen explodes in color. In a beautiful scene he watches Chitty Chitty Bang Bang with her grandmother, and as the magic car tumbles off a cliff, a glow of color illuminates her glasses.
Dench exudes soul as Buddy’s smiling, sad-eyed grandmother, and Hinds is utterly superb as his grandfather, an eloquent sage with a great story for every occasion. An Oscar nomination seems likely for Hinds, as well as Caitriona Balfe, who delivers her best performance yet as Buddy’s formidable mom.
She and Dornan may be the loveliest couple to ever emerge from this island, but that may be how Branagh remembers his own parents and the special Belfast childhood that ended so suddenly.
Rating: five stars
Nightmare Alley (16, 150 mins)
With alley of nightmares, Guillermo Del Toro ties his lush, dark cinematic style to a classic noir novel. William Lindsay Gresham’s story was first adapted for the screen in 1947 and in this update, Bradley Cooper is cast in the role originally played by Tyrone Power.
Stan Carlisle shows up at a seedy Midwestern carnival run by a dodgy owner (Willem Dafoe), gets a menial job, then befriends a psychic named Zeena (Toni Collette) and her magician husband Pete (David Strathairn).
They go after Stan, not realizing he’s a con artist and some kind of vampire, who steals Pete’s act and some tricks from Zeena too before fleeing to Chicago to hit the big time.
With him leaves the impressive circus artist Molly (Rooney Mara), who will quickly regret it because Stan then falls in love with Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), a very wealthy psychiatrist.
Blanchett overdoes it, as does Del Toro, whose film begins wonderfully at carnival before descending into an unseemly and unnecessary Guignol orgy.
Rating: three stars
A Diary for Jordan (12A, 131mins)
Based on bestselling memoir, Denzel Washington’s A newspaper for Jordan lays it down quite thick. In 2007, journalist Dana Canedy (Chanté Adams) struggles with her bosses at The New York Times while struggling to raise her one-year-old son, Jordan, on her own.
One evening, after dropping off the little man, she takes a damaged newspaper out of a drawer. It’s a book of life lessons from Jordan’s late father, Sergeant Charles King (Michael B. Jordan), and as Dana begins to type it, she reflects on the ups and downs of their life together.
Director Washington takes us into the details of their oddly formal and slightly cheesy courtship, as Dana meets Charles at his parents’ house and chains him up for a bit before finally committing.
Jordan and Adams go well together, but struggle with the heaviness of the saccharine dialogue, and A newspaper for Jordan plays it safe with politics too, in no way questioning the morality of a military-industrial system that sucks in working-class men and women for imperialist adventures abroad and spits them out to pieces.
Rating: Two stars