Following a brief, wordless prelude that displays the Irish city in all of its present-day, full-color glory, writer/director Kenneth Branagh's memory piece Belfast begins its black-and-white period reverie with a scene that lets us know exactly what to expect over the course of the film. For better and worse.
It's August of 1969, and our Branagh stand-in – nine-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill) – is playing with friends in the streets of his Belfast hometown, running about with a wooden sword and using a garbage-can lid as a shield. As Branagh's camera glides through the neighborhood, we're clearly being primed to view this burg, with its charming cobblestone streets, as an idyl – a bustling paradise for a happy, popular, imaginative kid. Right after Buddy is called in for supper, however, everything changes: A gang of incensed, adult Protestants appear from around the corner, they castigate those living in Catholic homes, and there's an explosion. The Troubles of Northern Ireland have officially been initiated, and as she races to bring Buddy and his older brother Will (Lewis McAskie) home safely, their Ma (Caitríona Balfe) protects her children from thrown rocks and debris using Buddy's makeshift shield as an actual one.
This Belfast preamble lasts roughly five of the movie's 97 minutes, but they're five minutes worth unpacking. Before we even meet Buddy, Branagh establishes a tone of seemingly deliberate artifice, with the camera scooting alongside lovingly recreated home exteriors and storefronts and neighbors cheerily greeting one another like the animated villagers at the start of Disney's Beauty & the Beast. Haris Zambarioukos' black-and-white cinematography, which is handsome but somewhat inexpressive, adds to the make-believe quality of it all, and when Buddy becomes cognizant that a riot is forming, the camera makes two full spins around the child as his nerves escalate – a show-offy flourish from a director not averse to showing off. It's only when Ma, with her frenzied maternal panic, enters the scene and grabs hold of her children that this sequence feels in any way real, and even then, Branagh can't resist the telegraphed irony of Ma using her son's “toy” shield to ward off literal, life-threatening danger.
That's Belfast in a nutshell. Its overall tone is child's-view fanciful – a rose-tinted (albeit mostly black-and-white) love letter to the formative people and places of Branagh's youth – but with added dollops of painful real-world experience that make for an awkward, not entirely successful blend. The movie is oftentimes touching and funny, and I was continually engaged. I just never quite bought what Branagh was selling.
If you had to pinpoint a narrative thrust, it would lie in the subtle battle of wills between Buddy's Ma and Pa (Jamie Dornan) as they wrestle with how to best care for their children. Despite the ever-present threats of violence and their neighborhood quickly resembling a war zone with barricades and routine checkpoints, Ma wants the clan to remain in Belfast. She's heard stories of other countries' ill treatment of the Irish, and with her family a Protestant one, she's certain that they'll be seen as vandals and terrorists, and that her children will be in for a lifetime of suffering. (Leaving Belfast would also mean leaving Pa's parents, the boys' adored “Granny” and “Pop” played by Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds.) But Pa, whose current job requires that he be away from Belfast for weeks at a time merely to eke out a lower-middle-class existence, wants them to flee Ireland as soon as possible. He has an offer for a higher-paid position in England, and if Ma bristles at that notion, he's open to Australia and Canada, too – anywhere that would give their kids a better chance at staying alive. (Pa argues that children Buddy's and Will's ages have been killed just down the street, but as with all of the most harrowing aspects of the Troubles here, Branagh keeps that particular horror off-screen.)
Yet you grasp the film's tough-minded storyline only in fits and starts, as most of Belfast consists, instead, of agreeable vignettes demonstrating Buddy's still-remarkably-carefree existence. He falls for a cute girl from his class (David Tennant's 10-year-old daughter Olive), and tries to better himself as a student in order to sit next to her in the front row. He engages in some mild shoplifting with his bad-influence older cousin Moira (Lara McDonnell). He passes time in the back alley to his grandparents' home, listening to Pop's romanticized reminiscences and Granny's sarcastic dismissals of them. And through it all, Buddy basks in the magic of show business: watching Star Trek and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance on television; catching Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and One Million Years B.C. at the local cinema; attending a stage production of A Christmas Carol. Only the radio, with its constant updates on the Troubles, doesn't offer Buddy an escape – though the movie is replete with pop hits of the era, nearly all of them sung by Van Morrison.
There's something to be said for Belfast's largely lighthearted leanings. While he's clearly not blind to or indifferent toward the political/religious uprisings of his youth, Branagh does a commendable job of showing how his family managed to keep him, as a child, predominantly safe and content amidst considerable turmoil, and even gloomy Ma is able to crack a joke and laugh now and then. Plus, of course, Buddy's obsession with TV, movies, and plays demonstrates how young Branagh eventually found his professional calling; the family's prospects could be at their bleakest, but there was always entertainment to help get them through. (In a nice touch, the movies and stage production Buddy sees are shot in full color, and it was particularly moving to see the hues of Dickens' holiday fable reflected in the lenses of Granny's glasses.) Despite the black-and-white, this isn't a somber memoir, for which I was grateful, and if Branagh's offering doesn't match the artfulness of Alfonso Cuarón's similarly themed Roma, it blessedly isn't trying to be Roma. Yet I still couldn't help but wish that the film boasted even a tenth of the Cuarón picture's realism, because far too many of Belfast's memories either strain credibility or end up feeling like pure, and inappropriate, fantasy.
That “poor provincial town” opener, it turns out, isn't an aberration. Though he's meant to be threatening, the resident Protestant bully Billy Clanton (Colin Morgan) ultimately comes across as a Gaston-esque cartoon, and Pa's eventual triumph over the guy – another baldly telegraphed bit that finds Buddy's dad hurling a brick like a baseball – is too silly to even qualify as a child's mistaken remembrance. A late-film trashing of the neighborhood grocery comes with an equally unbelievable wrap-up, especially given how staunchly Ma has been trying to keep Buddy out of harm's way. The scene of the family at Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is grossly over-directed, with kids and adults alike responding to Dick Van Dyke's flying car like those silent-movie patrons who reportedly shrieked and ducked at the approach of The Great Train Robbery's locomotive.
Most disappointingly of all, especially given how much fun his crooning was in Barb & Star Go to Vista del Mar earlier this year, Dornan's serenading of Balfe with a cover of “Everlasting Love” is shot like a full-on musical number as opposed to the sweet, tender passage it should have been. While these impossibly gorgeous and glamorous actors are certainly worthy of romanticized adulation, the stylized phoniness of the presentation – Pa sounding no different singing many feet away from the microphone than he does standing in front of it – kills your buzz, and also makes you aware of how frequently Branagh employs Dornan's and Balfe's beauty to mask the film's inherent artificiality. Peeling potatoes on the front stoop of Ma's home, Balfe – who's stunning throughout in a series of fitted slacks and above-the-knee skirts – looks about as radiant as a human being has ever looked. I was also pretty sure that, until this moment, the performer had never peeled a potato in her life.
There are other issues: the easy, though usually amusing, punchlines; the pushy sentiment after Pop enters the hospital and starts imparting Life Lessons; the weird sidelining of Buddy's brother Will, a character so tangential to the action that several high-profile reviews I've read don't even bother to mention him. (Wouldn't that kid maybe also have something to say about the family's impending move to another country? Or at least occasionally join Buddy on his visits with Pop and Granny?) There are also loads of other perks: the economy of the storytelling; the endearing classroom scenes; the emotionally acute portrayals by every member of Branagh's screen family, with that young natural Jude Hill's most assuredly among them. (Falling somewhere between issue and perk is the in-joke that finds Buddy reading a Thor comic book, Branagh himself having later directed Marvel Studios' Thor.) I'd hardly argue against anyone seeing Belfast. But it also feels like something of a missed – or rather, mishandled – opportunity. Branagh's coming-of-age saga barely needs the Troubles. It has plenty of its own.
Belfast is a movie in black and white. Rebecca Hall's Passing is, too, but it's more specifically a movie about black and white.
Based on Nella Larsen's acclaimed 1929 novel, Hall's adaptation (currently playing at Iowa City's FilmScene and streaming on Netflix) is the tale of two light-skinned, well-to-do African-Americans who, momentarily or otherwise, attempt to pass as white in the roaring '20s of pre-Depression New York. Irene Redfield (Tessa Thompson) is a charity worker and mother of two who lives in Harlem with her physician husband Brian (André Holland), and who, on a particularly hot afternoon, enters a whites-only tea room and does her best to be inconspicuous under a wide-brimmed hat. While there, she notices a blond socialite openly laughing and drinking, and only gradually recognizes the ebullient presence as her childhood friend Clare Bellew (Ruth Negga), whose own husband John (Alexander Skarsgård) is convinced that the heavily-powdered black woman he married is Caucasian. Passing consequently follows Irene and Clare as they reunite, re-enter one another's daily lives, and find themselves individually aching for something the other woman possesses. For Irene, it's Clare's seemingly effortless ability to successfully “pass.” For Clare, it's Irene's apparent contentment in not needing to. In Hall's masterfully devastating drama, both women's presumptions prove to be tragically wrong.
Though praise for Hall's feature-length writing/directing debut has been considerable, I've read several reviews that don't grant the film its basic premise, saying that despite Eduard Grau's bold and beautiful cinematography, in no possible world would Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga ever successfully pass as white. Hall effectively makes that argument moot by so specifically demonstrating that the women's skin color isn't what's misleading people; it's their societal positioning. There's an utterly horrifying sequence here in which Irene meets Clare's husband for the first time and the man, presuming that Irene is white like him, comes right out and tells her “I hate Black people,” adding that he's never actually met one but knows enough about them to not waver in his opinion. (Because of her less-than-snowy complexion, John “lovingly” nicknames his wife “Nig,” which stands for precisely what you think it does.) To John, it's unthinkable that women who look and act and dress and have money like Irene and Clare could be members of that race, and what Thompson and Negga accomplish with their silent expressions in this scene is extraordinary: Thompson doing her stiff-upper-lip best at masking Irene's revulsion; Negga's unvoiced apology bristling with legitimate terror at Clare's ruse being potentially found out.
While Passing isn't a horror movie, it boasts a greater number of bone-chilling moments than you'll find in any of the year's legit fright flicks (with the possible exceptions of the ones in the similarly horror-adjacent Spencer). And astoundingly, for all of its edgy intensity, Hall's outing is also one of 2021's warmest releases – a view of the past, like Belfast, bathed in empathy and love, but with an intellectual vigor and propulsive narrative that make its 99 minutes feel fleet and intimate yet also almost epically grand. With only about six weeks to go, I'm not sure I'll see better screen acting this year than what Thompson and Negga deliver; both reveal so many layered, exhilarating sides to their conflicted personae that watching them is like the ultimate performance-based contact high. Yet from the immaculate period design to composer Devonte Hynes' alternately playful and menacing jazz-era score to the support provided by Holland, Skarsgård, and that naturalistic wonder Bill Camp (playing a middle-aged white man trying, in a different way, to pass), Hall's debut outing is utterly riveting. And while the film would certainly be worth catching on the big screen, I'll admit that I was grateful to view it on Netflix, given that a near-climactic incident was so enigmatically staged – intentionally enigmatically – that I had to rewind and watch the moment three additional times before the full astonishment of what I witnessed could sink in. Passing is painful stuff. It's also splendid stuff.
CLIFFORD THE BIG RED DOG
I was able to catch director Walt Becker's family slapstick Clifford the Big Red Dog with my favorite seven-year-old movie-going companion, and as she giggled throughout and seemed only the teensiest bit restless by the finale, we both had a terrific time. But here's my embarrassing confession: I think I would have had a terrific time even if she weren't there to chaperone me.
My guess is that a plot description isn't necessary, because if you're familiar with the beloved canine and Scholastic Corp. mascot made famous through Norman Bridwell's children's-book series, you likely know what you're in for. (If you demand a synopsis nonetheless, let's go with: girl finds adorable puppy, girl loses adorable puppy, girl reclaims adorable puppy.) If you've seen the film's previews, you may also have blanched a bit at the GCI employed to make 10-foot Clifford appear, none too convincingly, just as three-dimensional as his live-action co-stars and surroundings. Yet in a movie year that has already delivered a pair of truly juvenile debacles in Tom & Jerry and Space Jam: A New Legacy, I found the comparative sweetness and emotional honesty of Becker's kiddie comedy totally refreshing.
A majority of its success has to go to 14-year-old Darby Camp, whose lively, committed performance as Clifford's loving owner Emily Elizabeth is wholly free of cutesiness. (She's also a convincingly mature counterpart to the girl's ne'er-do-well Uncle Casey, played by Jack Whitehall with more slacker-doofus invention than this sort of role generally allows.) But even the movie's token tech-whiz villain, enacted by a sardonic Tony Hale, is a subtler, less sneering stereotype than we're used to, and buoyant comic talents keep popping up like friendly bubbles: recent Tony Award winner David Alan Grier as a grouchy building superintendent; John Cleese as the Willy Wonka who rescues Clifford and finds him a home; Rosie Perez as a veterinary receptionist; Izaac Wang as Emily Elizabeth's friend who harbors a not-so-secret crush; a quartet of Saturday Night Live veterans in Kenan Thompson, Alex Moffat, Horatio Sanz, and Siobhan Fallon Hogan. The slapstick is nothing to write home about, and the jokes are fairly typical, and the climactic comeuppance is underwhelming. But Clifford the Big Red Dog is still a sunny, almost consistently enjoyable lark with an unexpectedly rich “We Heart NYC” bent, and my seven-year-old pal loved the sights of Clifford chasing enormous balls (with human occupants) in Central Park and casually annihilating his new apartment's furniture. Nothing, however, quite compared to the giggles she let loose when the big red dog had to take a big yellow pee. Just imagine the size of the plastic bag poor Emily Elizabeth will have to haul around whenever she takes that beast for a walk.