BRIAN VINER reviews Belfast

Kenneth Branagh’s sentimental journey is an absolute joy: BRIAN VINER reviews Belfast

Belfast (12A, 98 minutes)

Verdict: A small masterpiece

Rating:

Nightmare Alley (15, 150 mins)

Verdict: Overlong, but hugely stylish

Rating:

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.

But it has always seemed like a footnote to his story. With his largely autobiographical drama Belfast, for which he won a richly deserved Best Screenplay award at the Golden Globes earlier this month, he shines a spotlight on it for the first time.

The result is a bewitchingly intimate, warm-hearted, wholly captivating film, firmly rooted in a particular time and place yet in a way telling a generic tale, that of refugees through the ages.

Sir Kenneth Branagh has never made a secret of his early life, growing up in Northern Ireland as the Troubles erupted

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

From start to finish, it is enchantingly done. It opens with colour shots of modern-day Belfast, accompanied, as the film is throughout, by the music of Van Morrison. Then it morphs into black and white to show a contented urban scene in August 1969: children playing, neighbours chatting, a happy community at one with itself and a young boy, Buddy (engagingly played by newcomer Jude Hill), slowly making his way home.

Suddenly, everything changes. Rioters appear, hardline Loyalists bent on driving Catholics from the mostly Protestant neighbourhood. Branagh effects a powerful 360-degree shot around the bewildered Buddy as nasty, violent tumult invades his innocent, carefree boyhood.

Soon there are tanks rolling up Mountcollyer Street, where Buddy lives with his Ma (Caitriona Balfe) and Pa (Jamie Dornan), older brother, Will (Lewis McAskie), and paternal grandparents Granny (Dame Judi Dench) and 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. What has actually descended is a state of being especially resonant in our own pandemic-blighted times: a new normal. Family and community life go on as before. Even poisonous sectarianism finds its way into everyday dialogue: ‘Daddy, are you not going to be a vigilante on our barricade?’

With his largely autobiographical drama Belfast, for which he won a richly deserved Best Screenplay award at the Golden Globes earlier this month, he shines a spotlight on it for the 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.

In fact, Buddy has more pressing concerns than men with guns, such as a crush on a girl in his class and a minor shoplifting rap. 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.

The relationship between Buddy and Pop is depicted with irresistible tenderness and humour. ‘There’s nothing wrong with an outside toilet,’ says the old man, ‘except on an aeroplane.’

From start to finish, it is enchantingly done. It opens with colour shots of modern-day Belfast, accompanied, as the film is throughout, by the music of Van Morrison

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 terrific, too; and Balfe, beguilingly bonny even when her character is in despair, will surely lift a statuette or two before awards season is done.

For some people, perhaps, the seam of sentimentality that runs through the picture might be too much. But it will take a stony heart not to embrace it, or to balk at the occasional whimsical flourishes, such as a High Noon-style stand-off between Pa and the Loyalist thugs trying to recruit him.

Guillermo del Toro’s Nightmare Alley, a neo-noir 1940s thriller based on a novel by William Lindsay Gresham, is almost an hour longer.

I loved every minute of it. 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.

Another joy of Belfast is its brevity: a little over an hour and a 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. 

A splendid cast also includes Willem Dafoe, Tim Blake Nelson and Mary Steenburgen

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.

The film, dark enough throughout, then takes a decidedly sinister turn as Stan plots, in alliance with a creepy psychiatrist played by Cate Blanchett, to swindle an ageing tycoon (Richard Jenkins).

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 (12A, 131 mins)

Verdict: Nowt to write home about

Rating:

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. There is simply no valid artistic reason for it to last well over two 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.

It makes the narrative top-heavy, unwieldy and unforgivably boring.

Both charismatic leads do a fine job in the circumstances, but as the film flits back and forth in time, some of the dialogue is laughably feeble.

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.

I actually laughed out loud at one point when, as both watch the horrifying TV pictures of the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers, Charles phones Dana in the office and tells her to get herself home straight away. Solemnly, she agrees.

As if, with the biggest story of their lives unfolding down the street, the impulse of even a half-decent New York Times journalist would be to hide under the bed.

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