Skip to main content

Get yourselves to the Moon.

Belfast
(2021)

(SPOILERS) I wasn’t expecting that. I may have to retract my assessment that Sir Ken is one of the worst directors under the firmament. There’s no doubting his responsibility for the steaming pile that is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and I wouldn’t wish to go to the opposite of extreme of suggesting Belfast is some kind of small miracle, but it is, for the most part, a model of restraint and well-wrought performances. Almost as if, when faced with something personal, Branagh was ironically able to get out of its way.

Cynicism is due Belfast, however. It’s a modest little movie, calibrated, with its black-and-white and nostalgic/harsh autobiographical childhood elements, to score the kind of critical and awards garlands seen with past such escapades (Hope and Glory, Roma). Inevitably then, Belfast is gathering its own plaudits, but they’re inherently questionable.

The picture comes up short in terms of insights, offering low-fibre character types for family members and broad ones for villains, and much of its work is done for it, through the backdrop of the Troubles instilling an underlying – and sometimes overt – tension. Its movie-muse invocation is also slightly self-immolating, given Branagh’s chequered-at-best directorial career (he is no Guiseppe Tornatore, and his passion for the pictures, as identified by One Million Years B.C. and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, is considerably less evocative).

It perhaps helps Ken that his choice of the child’s-eye view forestalls a deep dive into the period’s political turmoil; he ensures he doesn’t come unstuck simply by making it clear the unrest is bad for everyone, and in particular for the kids. His one sectarian is thoroughly bad seed Billy Clanton (Colin Morgan) – the western allusion is no coincidence – such that Jamie Dornan’s Pa observes “You’re a jumped-up gangster and always were” (as in, there’s no danger of mistaking his rottenness as politically motivated).

I feared the worst in the opening scene, as the camera indulges a typically OTT Sir Ken circular motion around young Buddy – Jude Hill, very good, possibly too note-perfect at times, but never in a suffocating Haley Joel Osment sense – as a protestant riot overruns his street. Was this going to be yet another motivelessly over-directed Branagh affair? Fortunately not, as the visceral mayhem of the subsequent rampage is involving and immersive (this isn’t far off the grandstanding opening of Jim Sheridan’s grittier but equally contrived In the Name of the Father).

Indeed, Ken seems to know better, most of the time, allowing Ken the writer and Ken the friend of actors to have priority. The tendency to over flourish only really intrudes again during the third act (well, if there are actual acts here), when a succession of rather unbelievable circumstances collides.

The idea that Ma (Caitríona Balfe) would drag her thieving son back to a looted supermarket amid the looting, given her desperate attempt earlier to pluck him from the oncoming riot, is a stretch. An even bigger one is Pa appearing (from nowhere) in a High Noon showdown, he and Billy framed by riot police either side. One might, given the accompanying soundtrack, see this as Buddy’s subjective embellishment – which is doubtful, given the picture is only intermittently keyed that way – but that makes it no less a dramatic misjudgement, given the care Branagh has taken to keep the family on the periphery of overt involvement in the growing unrest.

Additionally, I’ve never been to an Irish wake, so it may well be grieving sons embark on renditions of Endless Love before leading their wives in a romantic groove – earlier, they’re dancing in the street like Cliff Richard never went out of fashion – but tonally. it seemed not only askew but also askance. An old dear bellowing out Danny Boy on the street – “What did you do with the money?”; “What money?”; “The money your ma gave you for singing lessons” – seemed much more authentic.

Pa’s earlier baiting by Billy, to show his loyalty to the cause, and dismissal thereof, carries a quiet conviction laced with the understanding that this familial situation can’t be sustained. However, Ken’s inherent lack of subtlety can only really be counterweighted by performance, as it isn’t in his nature. While Dorman and Balfe make for an absurdly attractive couple, both are highly accomplished in their roles. Balfe gives the kind of deceptively effortless performance that ought to be getting the awards recognition showier turns will doubtless eclipse.

Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench are as note-perfect as the grandparents as one would expect; Hinds is clearly playing older – and Dench younger – but I did wonder at the twenty-year age gap. It’s been said the picture is treacly, but my antennae for such elements is usually fairly acute, and aside from the classmate Buddy moons over and Grandma’s heartfelt “Go. Go now. Don’t look back” at the end, I didn’t feel I was being drowned in sentimental effluent.

Ken’s period flavour is sometimes vivid, at others rather self-conscious (again, Sheridan was as guilty with In the Name of the Father). He has nothing very profound to say about God, which makes sense given the family’s ambivalence (the fork in the road notwithstanding). The punctuation of everyday life with events of the year (1969) inevitably takes in the (alleged) Moon landings, and Star Trek, and young Ken Buddy is cutely seen reading a Thor comic; there is a slight sense of Branagh pulling up a Wiki list to pad out his picture (which is commendably brief), although that’s mostly in the form of the aforementioned junior pre-romance subplot. I was also given pause at a family ostensibly so strapped for cash being able to afford a Thunderbirds outfit for one of their offspring.

Branagh’s also light on diving into period attitudes. Time noted, with a glimmer of a raised eyebrow, that his Belfast “is much more diverse than viewers might expect”. Granny comments on an Asian neighbour, and Buddy is pressed by Moira (Lara McDonnell) into stealing chocolate from Mr Singh’s (Sid Sagar) corner shop, while his teacher is played by Irish-Nigerian Vanessa Ifediora. The black English soldier getting short with Ma receives no derisive comment. Granny’s initial response suggests Ken won’t be pressed into revisionism, but later examples imply presentism at play (“the romantic nostalgia of his own memory” as Time charitably put it). Buddy’s right that no one likes Turkish Delight, though.

The bursts of colour seen intermittently are likely conceits Ken took from other sources (Pleasantville, for example), an indication that the true vibrancy of life comes from an escape into the arts, be that John Sessions (!) on stage or a flying car. Elsewhere, your mileage may vary, but by my reckoning, nine Van Morrison songs on the soundtrack is at least eight too many.

The issue with Belfast, by and large, is less about how well observed and admirably played it is within the limitations of its canvas, than it’s positioning, so clearly positioned to attract plaudits, so composed with an eye to generating admiration (regular Branagh DP Haris Zambarkoukos does some valiant heavy lifting to that end, and the use of black and white is much more effective than the anaemic results seen in previous awards contenders Mank or Roma). It’s a minor, agreeable affair, although by Ken’s standards, that makes it something of a triumph.


Popular posts from this blog

If I do nothing else, I will convince them that Herbert Stempel knows what won the goddam Academy Award for Best goddam Picture of 1955. That’s what I’m going to accomplish.

Quiz Show (1994) (SPOILERS) Quiz Show perfectly encapsulates a certain brand of Best Picture nominee: the staid, respectable, diligent historical episode, a morality tale in response to which the Academy can nod their heads approvingly and discerningly, feeding as it does their own vainglorious self-image about how times and attitudes have changed, in part thanks to their own virtuousness. Robert Redford’s film about the 1950s Twenty-One quiz show scandals is immaculately made, boasts a notable cast and is guided by a strong screenplay from Paul Attanasio (who, on television, had just created the seminal Homicide: Life on the Streets ), but it lacks that something extra that pushes it into truly memorable territory.

Your Mickey Mouse is one big stupid dope!

Enemy Mine (1985) (SPOILERS) The essential dynamic of Enemy Mine – sworn enemies overcome their differences to become firm friends – was a well-ploughed one when it was made, such that it led to TV Tropes assuming, since edited, that it took its title from an existing phrase (Barry Longyear, author of the 1979 novella, made it up, inspired by the 1961 David Niven film The Best of Enemies ). The Film Yearbook Volume 5 opined that that Wolfgang Petersen’s picture “ lacks the gritty sauciness of Hell in the Pacific”; John Boorman’s WWII film stranded Lee Marvin and Toshiro Mifune on a desert island and had them first duking it out before becoming reluctant bedfellows. Perhaps germanely, both movies were box office flops.

Piece by piece, the camel enters the couscous.

The Forgiven (2021) (SPOILERS) By this point, the differences between filmmaker John Michael McDonagh and his younger brother, filmmaker and playwright Martin McDonagh, are fairly clearly established. Both wear badges of irreverence and provocation in their writing, and a willingness to tackle – or take pot-shots – at bigger issues, ones that may find them dangling their toes in hot water. But Martin receives the lion’s share of the critical attention, while John is generally recognised as the slightly lesser light. Sure, some might mistake Seven Psychopaths for a John movie, and Calvary for a Martin one, but there’s a more flagrant sense of attention seeking in John’s work, and concomitantly less substance. The Forgiven is clearly aiming more in the expressly substantial vein of John’s earlier Calvary, but it ultimately bears the same kind of issues in delivery.

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989) (SPOILERS) There’s Jaws , there’s Star Wars , and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws ’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy , to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “ more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie ”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “ mainly boring ”. Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the

I’m just the balloon man.

Copshop (2021) (SPOILERS) A consistent problem with Joe Carnahan’s oeuvre is that, no matter how confidently his movies begin, or how strong his premise, or how adept his direction or compelling the performances he extracts, he ends up blowing it. He blows it with Copshop , a ’70s-inspired variant on Assault on Precinct 13 that is pretty damn good during the first hour, before devolving into his standard mode of sado-nihilistic mayhem.

Say hello to the Scream Extractor.

Monsters, Inc. (2001) (SPOILERS) I was never the greatest fan of Monsters, Inc. , even before charges began to be levelled regarding its “true” subtext. I didn’t much care for the characters, and I particularly didn’t like the way Pixar’s directors injected their own parenting/ childhood nostalgia into their plots. Something that just seems to go on with their fare ad infinitum. Which means the Pixars I preferred tended to be the Brad Bird ones. You know, the alleged objectivist. Now, though, we learn Pixar has always been about the adrenochrome, so there’s no going back…

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.

When we have been subtle, then can I kill him?

The Avengers 6.16. Legacy of Death There’s scarcely any crediting the Terry Nation of Noon-Doomsday as the same Terry Nation that wrote this, let alone the Terry Nation churning out a no-frills Dalek story a season for the latter stages of the Jon Pertwee era. Of course, Nation had started out as a comedy writer (for Hancock), and it may be that the kick Brian Clemens gave him up the pants in reaction to the quality of Noon-Doomsday loosened a whole load of gags. Admittedly, a lot of them are well worn, but they come so thick and fast in Legacy of Death , accompanied by an assuredly giddy pace from director Don Chaffey (of Ray Harryhausen’s Jason and the Argonauts ) and a fine ensemble of supporting players, that it would be churlish to complain.

Tippy-toe! Tippy-toe!

Seinfeld 2.7: The Phone Message The Premise George and Jerry both have dates on the same night. Neither goes quite as planned, and in George’s case it results in him leaving an abusive message on his girlfriend’s answerphone. The only solution is to steal the tape before she plays it. Observational Further evidence of the gaping chasm between George and Jerry’s approaches to the world. George neurotically attacks his problems and makes them worse, while Jerry shrugs and lets them go. It’s nice to see the latter’s anal qualities announcing themselves, however; he’s so bothered that his girlfriend likes a terrible TV advert that he’s mostly relieved when she breaks things off (“ To me the dialogue rings true ”). Neither Gretchen German (as Donna, Jerry’s date) nor Tory Polone (as Carol, George’s) make a huge impression, but German has more screen time and better dialogue. The main attraction is Jerry’s reactions, which include trying to impress her with hi