Belfast (2021, Universal Pictures / Focus Features / Northern Ireland Screen)
Featuring Jamie Dornan, Caitríona Balfe, Judi Dench, Ciarán Hinds, Colin Morgan and Jude Hill. Music by Van Morrison. Written and directed by Kenneth Branagh.
Belfast is a self-biographical film written and directed by Kenneth Branagh. Filmed mostly in black and white, it is set in 1969 during the early years of The Troubles, otherwise known as the Northern Ireland Conflict. This was a 30 year conflict around whether Northern Ireland should stay as part of the United Kingdom, but sometimes crudely expressed through open hostility between Protestants and Catholics. This is the backdrop to a few months in 1969 and early 1970 in which the film follows Buddy (Jude Hill) and his family and the street in which they have always lived. Their street friends are both Protestant and Catholic, but a wave of organised violence against Catholic households aims to fracture generations-long friendships.
Despite the difficult subject matter, and a sense of creeping chaos and violence, there are plenty of lighter moments in the narrative which show that, underneath it all, most people just want to get on and live their lives. Buddy and his family are more interested in family and friends, and how they are going to pay their taxes. The relationships between family members, their trials and triumphs and light-hearted discussions around young romance puts heart and soul into the film.
Branagh put together an outstanding ensemble cast, every member of whom puts in a sterling performance. Long-term greats, Judy Dench (Granny) and Ciarán Hinds (Pop) put in heart-warming performances as Buddy’s grandparents; Jamie Dornan (Pa) and Caitríona Balfe (Ma) capture the anxiety and love that drives any parents in a difficult situation; Colin Morgan plays a suitably menacing thug – Billy Clinton; and young Jude Hill is astounding as Buddy.
Cinematography by Haris Zambarloukos is wonderful. Shot mostly in black and white – which is more than a filmic metaphor in this movie – the film occasionally slips into colour when characters are watching films and theatre and enjoying other escapist fantasies. Combined with the music of Van Morrison (who is also from Belfast), and sharp editing by Úna Ní Dhonghaíle, the whole look and sound of it is very atmospheric. You kind of feel the scenes as well as see them. And I should credit Branagh for a very engaging script.
Belfast was released in the United States in 2021, and in the United Kingdom, Australia and elsewhere in January 2022. It has already been nominated for all sorts of cinematic awards, which are certainly well deserved. I adore this film; it is one of the better films of the past year.
Reviewed by Robin Stevens
Nightmare Alley (2021, Searchlight Pictures)
Featuring Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Toni Collette, Willem Dafoe, Richard Jenkins, Ron Perlman, Mary Steenburgen and David Strathairn. Based on a novel by William Lindsay Gresham. Directed by Guillermo del Toro.
Based on the 1946 book of the same name by William Lindsay Gresham, Nightmare Alley features a superb ensemble cast led by Bradley Cooper, and including Willem Dafoe, Cate Blanchet, Toni Collette, Rooney Mara, Richard Jenkins, David Strathairn and Ron Pearlman.
Nightmare Alley follows Stan Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) as he seeks to escape his dark past and finds himself seduced and captivated by both the magic and the grotesque of a traveling carnival in 1940s America. Stan joins the circus and soon seizes an opportunity to learn the tricks and tools of trade of a clairvoyant (Toni Collette), and her mentalist husband (David Strathairn). It’s not long before Stan is promoting himself as a master mentalist and later, mind reader and spiritualist, driven to reach higher accolades and riches on the private circuit, until an encounter with psychoanalyst, Dr Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchet) channeling a 1940s femme fatale (or an evil Bette Davies) changes everything.
In this haunting film noir, del Toro continues his fascination with monsters, though in this case, of the human kind. A psychological thriller that draws you in, and then spits you out, as you follow Stan’s nightmare journey into the very depths of human greed and ultimately degradation.
The production and set design is rich and evocative taking us to the front and back of a house, for a view of the suppurate boil of a “freak” show and the wicked art of deception. Nightmare Alley won the American Cinemtheque award for Best Production Designer/Set Designer, and has been nominated for numerous other awards, including four Oscars: Best Picture (del Toro, Miles Dale and Cooper), Best Cinematography (Dan Laustsen), Best Production Design (Tamara Deverell and Shane Vieau) and Best Costume Design (Luis Sequeira). Astonishingly no actors received Oscar nominations despite quality performances all round.
Like Stan Carlisle, I too was seduced by the spectacle and the magic of carnival during the depression, the stellar performances, and depths to which del Toro goes to shine a light on the underbelly of carnival in his latest Film Noir. Despite some predictable twists and turns, this is a gripping cinematic experience, though not for the faint-hearted.
Reviewed by Geraldine Stevens