Belfast (12A), 98 minutes
Verdict: This is a small masterpiece
Nightmare Alley (15 mins, 150 mins).
Verdict: Too long, but very stylish
Sir Kenneth Branagh has never made a secret of his early life, growing up in Northern Ireland as the Troubles erupted, then leaving at the age of nine when his working-class Protestant parents made the decision to move the family to England to escape the turmoil.
It has been a side note to his life. He shines the spotlight for the first-time on his autobiographical drama Belfast.
This film is intimate and warmhearted. It’s a captivating, heartwarming, charming, moving movie that’s rooted in one particular place but tells a universal story about refugees throughout the centuries.
Sir Kenneth Branagh never kept his childhood in Northern Ireland secret, as he was growing up during the Troubles.
He left at the age of nine when his working-class Protestant parents made the decision to move the family to England to escape the turmoil
The film is stunning from beginning to end. The film opens in colour with shots of Belfast today, and is accompanied throughout by Van Morrison’s music. It then transforms to black and white, showing a peaceful urban scene of August 1969. There are children playing, neighbors chatting and an happy community. Buddy, the young boy (excitedly played by Jude Hill), is slowly returning home.
All of a sudden, things change. Hardline Loyalists are determined to drive Catholics out of the predominantly Protestant neighborhood, and Rioters emerge. Branagh makes a strong 360-degree turn around Buddy to show how violent, cowardly, and destructive tumult is threatening his innocence, which he had enjoyed as an innocent child.
Soon tanks will be rolling up Mountcollyer Street. Buddy lives in Mountcollyer Street with Ma (Caitriona Bulfe) & Pa (Jamie Dornan), his older brother Will (Lewis McAskie), as well as paternal grandparents Granny Dame Judi Dench & Pop (Ciaran Hinds).
Not giving actual names to the grown-ups seems to be another nod to the story’s universality and, more specifically, in the case of Ma and Pa, to the importance of Westerns in Buddy’s imagination.
Meanwhile, the ceiling appears to have fallen in on his world except, significantly, it hasn’t. Instead, what has fallen is an enviable state that’s especially relevant in these pandemic-ravaged times. It’s a new normal. As before, family and community life continue as usual. Even poisonous sectarianism finds its way into everyday dialogue: ‘Daddy, are you not going to be a vigilante on our barricade?’
His autobiographical drama Belfast for which he was nominated for Best Screenplay at the Golden Globes, shines light on the film for the very first time
The essence of Belfast, a little like John Boorman’s charming Hope And Glory (1987), is this transition from peace to war in the context of a little boy’s life, and that of his family.
Buddy actually has bigger problems than most men with guns. He is a crush on his teacher and an occasional shoplifter. The bitter strife in the streets isn’t even the biggest headache for his parents; there’s an onerous tax bill to pay and growing evidence that Pop’s lungs are giving out.
Pop’s and Buddy’s love story is filled with tenderness and laughter. ‘There’s nothing wrong with an outside toilet,’ says the old man, ‘except on an aeroplane.’
The film is stunning from beginning to end. The film opens with color shots of Belfast today, and is accompanied by Van Morrison’s music throughout.
Hinds plays Pop beautifully, but it might be Dench’s performance that moves you to tears, as Granny comes to terms with Ma and Pa’s painfully conflicted decision to uproot themselves.
Dornan is a great actor, as is Balfe. She is charmingly bright even in her despair and will be able to lift at least one statuette before awards season.
The sentimentality in the image might seem a bit too strong for some. It will be difficult to not embrace the sentimentality, and to resist the odd whimsical touches, like a High Noon style standoff between Pa, the Loyalist thugs trying his recruitment.
Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley, a neo-noir 1940s thriller based on a novel by William Lindsay Gresham, is almost an hour longer.
Every minute was wonderful. Van Morrison’s mostly original score is wonderful (Branagh contrives a nice homage by having Pa back a horse called Moondance) and the decision to shoot in monochrome is a masterstroke, not least because when the family go to the pictures, for instance to see Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the screen is fleetingly suffused in colour.
It’s a charming and effective way to show how the cinema enriches lives lived, especially back then, in shades of grey.
Belfast has another great thing: It takes only a bit over an hour and half.
Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley, a neo-noir 1940s thriller based on a novel by William Lindsay Gresham, is almost an hour longer. Yet it’s not as if the story can’t be told with a lot more economy, as it was in the 1947 version with Tyrone Power.
Mary Steenburgen and Tim Blake Nelson round out the stellar cast.
That aside, it’s a hugely stylish, highly atmospheric psychological drama, following the fluctuating fortunes of the enigmatic, itinerant Stan Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), who finds a job with a travelling carnival and learns a mind-reading act from the resident psychic (Toni Collette).
Really, the story is divided in two, because a couple of years later, after Stan has fallen for another act, Molly (Rooney Mara), the pair have left the carnival and he has reinvented himself as ‘The Great Stanton’, entertaining New York’s high society.
Dark enough, the film takes an unsettling turn when Stan conspires with Cate Blanchett (a creepy psychiatrist) to con Richard Jenkins, an elderly tycoon.
A splendid cast also includes Willem Dafoe, Tim Blake Nelson and Mary Steenburgen, and despite the film’s excessive length, and an ending that plunges into melodrama, it’s marvellously acted and gorgeous on the eye.
…but Denzel steps behind the camera and loses his way
A Journal for Jordan (131 minutes)
Verdict: There is nothing to be proud of
Denzel Washington doesn’t do much wrong professionally, but in directing A Journal For Jordan he takes a poignant true story, one you’d think could be told succinctly and movingly, and makes it laborious in the extreme. The film should not last more than 2 hours.
Charles King (Michael B Jordan) was a U.S. army sergeant killed in Iraq, who, in case he didn’t make it home, wrote a journal for his infant son Jordan to read as he grew up, including life advice ranging from how to deal with racists to how to treat women.
His fiancée was a New York Times journalist, Dana Canedy (Chante Adams), who after his death used his journal as the basis of a best-selling memoir.
Charles King (Michael B Jordan) was a U.S. army sergeant killed in Iraq, who, in case he didn’t make it home, wrote a journal for his infant son Jordan to read as he grew up, including life advice ranging from how to deal with racists to how to treat women
It’s easy enough to understand why her book has been adapted for the screen, but Washington, and screenwriter Virgil Williams, waste their material by dwelling for an absurd amount of time on the burgeoning relationship between Charles and Dana, almost as if they’re trying to force a fully formed romcom into the story.
This makes it unwieldy, heavy and unbearably boring.
The two charismatic leads do an admirable job under the circumstances. However, as the film moves back and forth between time periods, some of their dialogue is laughably sloppy.
Denzel Washington doesn’t do much wrong professionally, but in directing A Journal For Jordan he takes a poignant true story, one you’d think could be told succinctly and movingly, and makes it laborious in the extreme
For example, given that the real Canedy is a writer good enough to have won the 2001 Pulitzer Prize (though the film doesn’t tell us this), the script is oddly clueless about how journalism works.
One point Charles called Dana and told her to call home, I laughed so hard that it was almost funny. She agrees solemnly.
It was as though, faced with the greatest story of their lives, a New York Times journalist wouldn’t feel the urge to crawl under the mattress.