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Posts Tagged ‘Ciaran Hinds’

It seems like a long time since Kenneth Branagh was routinely being compared with Laurence Olivier, a somewhat unimaginative point-of-reference that Branagh probably got a bit sick of, despite having really brought it on himself (starring in and directing an adaptation of Henry V before his 30th birthday and all). These days he seems to have happily carved out his own niche, with a profile which is closer to that of someone like Albert Finney – a brilliant actor, happy to lend his thesping muscle to unashamedly mainstream and commercial projects. Then again, Branagh also has am impressive record as a director, sometimes of rather unexpected projects – although in his work for Disney (he was in charge of the first Thor and the live-action Cinderella) any distinctiveness Branagh-ness he brought to the films is quite well concealed.

Then again, Branagh seems to subscribe to a ‘one for them, one for me’ philosophy when picking his projects, alternating big, well-remunerated fare with smaller, more distinctive films (the former helping to fund the latter). Branagh even seemed to acknowledge this himself in 1996’s In the Bleak Midwinter, a tale of a talented actor burnt out by too much vacuous Hollywood pap, who takes refuge in doing a tiny production of Hamlet (a film which immediately followed Branagh’s high-profile but not entirely successful version of Frankenstein).

The director now finds himself in the curious position of having had a completed film on the shelf for quite some time – a sequel to his outlandishly moustachioed performance as Hercule Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express, which has been waiting for the cinema market to recover and an appropriate release juncture to open up. In the meantime he has gone off and made a whole different film, which is clearly a ‘one for me’ project – indeed, perhaps the most personal film of his career.

The film is Belfast, which Branagh also wrote. After some vibrant images of the city as it appears today, the setting shifts back to August 1969, and the eruption of sectarian violence in a previously quiet street: Protestant rioters attempting to intimidate and drive out Catholic families. The incident is part of a series of events which results in the British army being deployed on the streets of the city and an increase in tension both between and within the different communities.

Largely oblivious to all this is Buddy (Jude Hill), a nine-year-old boy living in the neighbourhood with his family. Life is not exactly a rose garden for them – back taxes are a crushing burden even before the increase in violence, and Buddy’s Pa (Jamie Dornan) has to work in England to pay the bills – but they are surrounded by friends and family, deeply rooted in the city.

Much of the film is made up of vignettes and other incidents from Buddy’s life, and with detailing his relationship with his mother (Caitriona Balfe) and grandparents (Judi Dench and Ciaran Hinds). The tone is warm and affectionate, with plenty of humour – but the tensions in the city and the rise of the criminal gangs that would eventually declare themselves as loyalist paramilitaries are never far from the story.

I found Belfast to be an interesting and very likeable film, and quite engaging; if I had to point out a flaw in it, it’s that it feels like two quite different films which have been stitched together slightly awkwardly – there’s the autobiographical this-boy’s-life stuff, which is clearly drawn from Branagh’s own recollections (he himself turned nine in 1969) and has a tender, bitter-sweet quality to it, but also the virtually-obligatory story elements about the early years of the Troubles. This is by no means poorly done, but it does feel a bit rote in places. Most of the film is seen from Buddy’s perspective – many scenes feature frequent cutaways to Jude Hill, looking on in delight or bemusement – but some of the political discussions and confrontations function on a level where they don’t feel like they’ve been mediated by Buddy’s perceptions of them.

Of course, part of the message of the film is that the Troubles (a rather coy euphemism for what was, for many years, essentially a low-intensity civil war) is an inescapable part of the history of anyone living in Northern Ireland at the time. Branagh isn’t one of those people who makes a virtue of his Irishness, but this is because his family was one of the many who left Belfast to escape the violence; he grew up in England (where, one assumes, he learned to get rid of his accent rather quickly). Perhaps this film is an acknowledgement of heritage as much as anything else.

As I say, it does work better as a reminiscence about childhood. In this respect at least, it reminded me in some ways of Roma from a few years ago, although perhaps on a less-expansive scale. The main point of similarity, of course, is that both films are made in the same kind of lustrous black-and-white which is guaranteed to make virtually anything look a bit arty and significant. The closest thing to a distinctive artistic decision in the film is that when the family go to the cinema or theatre, whatever they’re watching appears in its original format – so High Noon and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance are also in black and white, but Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and One Million Years BC drench the screen with gorgeous technicolour. (When they watch a play it’s also in colour, for some reason.)

You could argue that the film is perhaps a little too prone to getting sentimental and indulging in whimsical Irish humour, but the performances are good enough to sell this – it’s also worth mentioning that, quite apart from the situation with the sectarian violence, the stresses and tensions within the family are treated quite unflinchingly, so this isn’t quite a wholly rose-tinted account of childhood. It certainly tends that way, though, and the audience at the screening I attended certainly seemed to appreciate it as such – perhaps the presence of a national treasure like the Dench in a warm family comedy-drama will serve to lure people into a film which does, in the end, serve as something of a reminder of a dark period in British history, and touches on not usually commercial topics. If this was Branagh’s intention it suggests a wiliness I would not usually have associated with him, but he is clearly a clever and talented man. Belfast should do nothing but bolster his reputation.

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