Belfast: The Troubles through a Child's Eyes


BELFAST (2021)

Directed and written by Kenneth Branagh

Focus Features, 98 minutes, PG-13 (some violence)




Belfast has won scads of awards already and will certainly be nominated for Oscars as well, though it’s unlikely to win many given that American audiences will find its Irish accents difficult to understand. It’s definitely worth putting on your Netflix queue though and watching it with subtitles.


Belfast is a semi-autobiographical take on director/writer Kenneth Branagh’s childhood. Branagh (b. 1960) was 9-years-old when “The Troubles” erupted in Northern Ireland, the sectarian violence between Protestants and Catholics that left more than 3,500 people dead before they quelled in 1998. We pick up the story in 1969, when Protestant and Irish Republican Army thugs turned neighbor against neighbor. That’s exactly what happened in Tigers Bay, Branagh’s lower middle-class section of the city where Catholics and Protestants peacefully intermingled. The film blames Protestants for precipitating violence, which is perhaps how he remembered it, but it would be either naïve or blindly nationalist to interpret the tragedy within any sort of white hat/black hat framework.


In Belfast, Branagh’s alter-ego is Buddy (Jude Hill), a charming, whip smart towhead. Buddy’s family is Protestant, and that’s one of several clever and effective choices made in the film. The second was the decision to depersonalize the conflict by identifying key players by their roles rather than names. Buddy’s parents are simply “Ma” (Catríona Balfe) and “Pa” (Jamie Duncan), and his grandparents, “Granny” (Judi Dench) and “Pop” (Ciarán Hinds). Another deft touch was instructing cinematographer Harris Zambarloukos to use low-angle shots so that we experience The Troubles from a child’s POV, right down to the way things were “seen” on store shelves.


Buddy and his older brother Will (Lewis McAskie) live carefree days playing football (soccer) and other games in the narrow streets lining the rowhouses and young Buddy has a wicked crush on flaxen-haired Catherine (Olive Tennant), a Catholic. It’s such an infatuation that he works hard on his math and other subjects so that he can eventually sit across for Catherine. (The teacher stratifies the class according to their grades.) Pa, like Branagh’s actual father William, works in England as a plumber and joiner for a firm that specializes in suspended ceilings and is usually home only on weekends. That’s not a popular place to earn one’s bread when violence flares and even the local Protestant minister (Turlough Convery) resorts to histrionics. And it’s really uncomfortable as children begin to form gangs and a puffed-up criminal named Billy Clanton (Colin Morgan) applies pressure to Pa to choose sides (which he refuses to do). As if the family doesn’t have enough problems with their tax bills, Pa’s gambling, and Pop’s declining health.


Jude Hill is, simply, adorable and, for a child, a strong actor. He’s the sort who practically invites you to jostle his hair and take him out for an ice lolly. It’s another inspired choice, as it drives home the idea that children are the real victims of ancient hatreds. (In “House of Orange, the last song Stan Rogers wrote before his death in 1983, he implored: Their sons have no politics. None can recall/Allegiance from long generations before. O’this or O’that name can’t matter at all/Or be cause enough for to war.)  Spot on! The film is really about the noncomprehending silent victims, so don’t expect anything from Dornan that approaches his rakishness in Fifty Shades of Grey; if anything, Balfe provides more steam. Though it’s Hill’s film, Hands comes close to stealing his thunder. He’s the kind of grandpa everyone wants–a lovable rascal with a healthy disregard for convention, a quick tongue, and deep love for his wife and grandkids. He can even discourse on why it’s a good thing to have outdoor toilets rather than in-house facilities and how to fool teachers by writing unclear numbers on homework papers. Dench also does a fine job of playing against her exalted reputation. She’s dowdy and stays within herself to drive home the same point as Balfe: In 1969, Northern Ireland was decidedly patriarchal.


It should be said that this is by no means an exhaustive or balanced look at The Troubles, nor should it be if your choice is to focus on kids and not politics. Objectively speaking, the film could have been longer to flesh out characters and give more background. Branagh, of course, knows the who’s who of his boyhood, but viewers don’t necessarily bring that foreknowledge into the theater.  The film is a scant 98 minutes, some in period back and white and others in color. Another 10-15 minutes could have sharpened backstories, though again I suspect Branagh wanted us to see types rather than getting bogged down in the lives of adults. If I might add still another excellent decision, though, Branagh’s decision to use Van Morrison songs as a soundtrack enhances the film.


If you’re wondering, Branagh’s father saw the handwriting on the wall and moved his family out of Northern Ireland before the worst violence broke out. They did not, however, go to London as the film suggests, rather they moved to Reading, about 40 miles southwest of London. Nonetheless, I guess we could say Branagh eventually did pretty well for himself.


Rob Weir



The Survivors: A Tasmanian Mystery



By Jane Harper

Flatiron Books, 375 pages.

★★★ ½ 




There are people who can’t wait to leave their hometowns and those who can’t imagine living anywhere else. Kieran Elliott is firmly in the first camp. He came of age in the small town of Evelyn Bay, Tasmania, and you really have to love solitude and the ocean to stay. Kieran has many reasons to live in Sydney, Australia with his girlfriend Mia and their three-month-old daughter Audrey, not the least of which are bad memories. When Kieran was 18, he got trapped in a sea cave during a horrible storm. He survived, but his older brother Finn and Toby Gilroy flipped their catamaran and drowned during a rescue attempt.


That’s the setup for The Survivors, a new mystery from Jane Harper. Kieran had issues years before the accident. He was the local golden boy before Ash McDonald showed up and was just a hair better than Kiernan at most things. Ash was so easy-going that he never perceived of any sort of rivalry and befriended Kieran. That mostly worked, but Ash never knew that Kiernan and he were both pursuing the foxy Olivia Birch. Twelve years later Kieran returns to Evelyn Bay with his family in tow. He is there to visit his parents Verity and Brian and help his mother close up his boyhood home. Brian has dementia and has become too much for Verity to handle in a pocket-sized seaside village with few social services.


Homecomings are often fraught, especially when the past crashes in like pounding surf. Ash, a landscaper, still lives there, as does Sean Gilroy, Toby’s younger brother, and his nephew Liam, who was four when his father died. Neither Brian, a longtime friend of Kieran’s, nor Toby’s widow blame Kieran, but Liam is resentful and Kieran perceives that all three really do think he was responsible for the drownings. To make matters worse, Kieran thinks Verity also blames him and he has felt guilty ever since the tragedy. The rancid cherry on the cake is that Olivia has returned to Evelyn Bay to be closer to her mother and has taken up with Ash.


There’s nothing like a small town for big grudges and dark secrets. They begin to surface when Olivia’s summer housemate, art student Bronte Laidler, is murdered outside the cave where Kieran’s troubles began. Evelyn Bay is a summer tourist town and no one wants to imagine that a local could have done such a thing. Local police Sgt. Chris Renn is stumped and Detective Inspector Sue Pendlebury has been sent from Hobart* to investigate.


Pendlebury has a fresh take and recognizes that Evelyn Bay seethes with grudges. Ash despises famous author George Barlin, who bought his grandmother’s old cottage and ripped out all of his meticulous gardening; a local waitress likes to play the gossip game; and bar and grill owner Julian Wallis who married Toby’s widow and adopted Liam is the sort who rubs some people the wrong way. Plus, Pendlebury begins to wonder if there is a connection between Bronte’s death and a third that occurred the same night of the big storm. Gabby Birch, Olivia’s 14-year-old look-alike sister, was last seen on a rock jetty as the waves crested. She was presumed drowned, though all that was ever found was her backpack. To make matters mirkier, Mia had been Gabby’s best friend.


The Survivors is also the name of a monument to those who died at sea and sits offshore and disappears at high tide. The fact that it lines up with the caves lends a creepy air that Pendlebury ponders. Harper’s mystery turns on several McGuffins that come into play: the backpack; cave wall etchings; a camera; a speeding car that nearly ran over Kieran, Mia, and Audrey; a flashlight; lies and half-truths; and an old timeline that doesn’t work.  


The Survivors is a solid mystery, though Harper serves up clues, possibilities, and inuendo in overly large portions that allow readers to discard red herrings and narrow the suspect buffet. However, I did not finger the right person, so credit to Harper for raising enough doubt to keep things interesting. Once again, though, Tom Wolfe was right: you can’t go home again.


Rob Weir


* Hobart is Tasmania’s capital and half of the island’s half million people live there. Evelyn Bay has a population of around 900.



North by Northwest Now Seems Campy



Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

MGM, Technicolor, 136 minutes, Not-rated





North by Northwest is considered such a great film that it has been preserved by the National Film Registry. I hadn’t seen it in decades so I decided to see how it holds up. Let’s just say it made more sense in 1959.


Hitchcock was definitely being playful in North by Northwest, beginning with the title. Many have pondered its meaning, but Hitchcock insisted that it was just a “fantasy” handle that didn’t mean anything in particular. What’s more obvious is that it is a Cold War film that has been called the “first James Bond film.” If you know nothing else about it, you probably know of its most famous scene in which beleaguered Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is running for his life from a machine gun-blasting crop duster in a barren section of Nebraska that’s flatter than a five-day glass on Coke left on the counter. That clip actually did inspire a scene in a Bond film, a helicopter chase in From Russia with Love (1963).


Thornhill is a twice-divorced New York advertising man whose gray suit identifies him as an other-directed interchangeable business cog like those incisively dissected in Sloan Wilson’s 1955 novel The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. Thornhill’s life is about to become more exciting. Waiters at a New York City bar page “George Kaplan” and several heavies conclude that Thornhill is he. Roger is kidnapped at gunpoint and spirited away to a fancy estate belonging to Lester Townshend. No one wants to hear that he’s not Kaplan; they just want him to die in an “accident.” Thornhill is forced to drink an entire bottle of bourbon, placed behind the wheel of a stolen car, and set loose on a winding cliffside road. Against all odds, Townshend survives, is picked up for DUI, and is bailed out the next morning by his disapproving mother (Jessie Royce Landis).


Needless to say, no one is buying his kidnapping story. Roger learns that Townshend is a UN official and that he’s being followed by the same team of baddies who kidnapped him. (One is Martin Landau who later starred in the TV spy series Mission: Impossible.) Thornhill meets Townshend at the UN just in time for one of the thugs to fire a knife into Townshend’s back. Great! Now Thornhill really has to flee as photographers snapped him pulling said knife out the dead man’s back. His only way out is to find Kaplan, whom he has reason to believe is in Chicago, and his best chance of getting there is to sneak aboard the 20th Century Limited. There he meets Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint), who almost instantly seduces him and agrees to help him. What ensues is a chase across three states, the discovery that Kaplan doesn’t exist, a triple cross, a subplot involving foreign agents and microfilm, and flight down the face of Mount Rushmore.


A lot of this seemed much more plausible during the frostiest days of the Cold War. From today's perspective, the most cinematic features of the film are the cinematography of Robert Burks and Bernard Hermann’s dramatic musical score. There are numerous comedic touches in the film that suggest Hitchcock intended a Spy vs. Spy* spoof on Cold War skullduggery. In other words, North by Northwest now seems campy. One of its greatest pleasures these days is finding all the plot holes.


There are many and I will point out just one. New York’s Finest can’t find Thornhill in Grand Central Station, even though a ticket agent has told them he’s there, his picture is in every newspaper in the city, and he’s wearing the same suit since he was picked up for DUI. In fact, he wears that MacGuffin through the entire movie. Wouldn’t you think at some point someone would say, “It’s the guy in the gray suit with the unusual accent who looks just like Cary Grant.” You also have to love the irony of another British-born sophisticate, James Mason, playing the main bad guy, and a third, Leo G. Carroll as a part of the U.S. spy team. Like Landau, Carroll parlayed his movie role into a TV spy series; he headed the white-hatted counter-espionage agency in The Man from U.N.C.L.E.  


You really can entertain yourself mightily by counting enough plot holes to make a fishing net. Hitchcock was usually a master at hiding them but to go back to being playful, he didn’t make much effort to disguise them in North by Northwest. He didn’t even take care to hide himself. (Hitchcock always placed himself in a walk-on somewhere in his films. In this one he’s like Waldo standing alone in a snowy field.) To top it off, the final shot of the movie is Sigmund Freud with a sledgehammer. When you see it, you’ll know what I mean.


A classic film? Not anymore, but camp is fun.


Rob Weir   


* If this reference eludes you, it was an ongoing Mad Magazine cartoon that satirized Cold War espionage.