A Christmas Carol

Belfast

21/01/22

Cineworld, Edinburgh

Kenneth Branagh’s semi-autobiographical film, Belfast, opens in supremely confident style.

We are presented with sleek, full-colour images of the city as it is now – the kind of scenes that might grace a corporate promotional video. And then the camera cranes up over a wall and, suddenly, we’re back in the summer of ’69, viewing events in starkly contrasting monochrome, as children run and play happily in the streets of humble terraced houses.

Amongst them is Buddy (Jude Hill), eight years old, wielding a wooden sword and a dustbin-lid shield. But the serenity of the scene is rudely disrupted by the arrival of a gang of masked men brandishing blazing torches and Molotov cocktails, extremist Protestants come to oust the Catholics who have dared to dwell on these streets. Buddy and his family are Protestant too and have happily lived alongside their Catholic neighbours for years, but now find themselves swept up in the ensuing violence.

It’s a powerful moment as we witness Buddy’s terror, the unexpected suddenness of this sea change literally freezing him in his tracks.

Then a gentler story begins to unfold, and we witness key events through Buddy’s naïve gaze. We are introduced to his Ma (Caitriona Balfe), to the father he idolises (Jamie Dornan), to his grandparents (Judi Dench and Ciarán Hands), and to the various neighbours and acquaintances who live in his familiar neighbourhood, a world he cherishes, suddenly transformed into something ugly and unpredictable.

Buddy’s father, a joiner by trade, works away from home in England, struggling to pay off his crushing tax debts. He’s keen to leave the city of his birth, to forge a new life for the family in England – but his wife is reluctant to leave and Buddy is obsessed with staying close to the girl at school he’s fallen in love with and hopes to marry one day.

Besides, how could he even think of leaving his beloved grandparents behind?

Branagh writes and directs here and handles both crafts with consummate skill, walking with ease the perilous tightrope between affection and sentimentality. Happily, he rarely puts a foot wrong. Buddy’s formative experiences include a visit to the theatre to see A Christmas Carol (with a lovely final performance from John Sessions – to whom the film is dedicated) and regular forays to the cinema, where we see extracts from Westerns High Noon and The Man Who Killed Liberty Valance. (If a cinema showing of One Million Years BC doesn’t exactly tie-in with the year in which the film is set, well no matter. Buddy is an unreliable narrator and his memories are built on uncertain foundations.)

I love Belfast. It’s a classy production, from the vintage Van Morrison soundtrack to the brilliant performances from the supporting cast. Young Jude Hill is simply perfect as Buddy, offering up a range of emotions that challenge the abilities of veteran performers Dench and Hinds. Watch out for some delicious Easter eggs that point to Branagh’s destiny. This film is all about formative experiences, the kind that shape a young boy’s future forever.

Belfast is an absolute joy, ready to be sampled at cinemas across the UK.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

An Edinburgh Christmas Carol

29/11/19

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

Does anything embody the theme of Christmas more perfectly than a generous helping of Charles Dickens? A Christmas Carol remains one of his most popular books – indeed, the images it contains pretty much sum up the British public’s entire concept of Christmas. Victorian costumes, decorated trees, festive feasts and of course, copious snow tumbling from the heavens. Tony Cownie’s spirited retelling of the story adds an extra ingredient: Edinburgh. And it works like a charm.

Actually, there’s solid reasoning behind this addition. There’s evidence to suggest that Dickens found inspiration for his most enduring character during a visit to Canongate Churchyard, where he spotted a tombstone commemorating a certain Ebenezer Scroggie, and even made a note about it as a potential character name for future use. Sadly, the gravestone is no longer there (lost during restorations in 1932), but Dicken’s inventive story still dazzles.

In An Edinburgh Christmas Carol, Scrooge (Crawford Logan) is a dour, curmudgeonly man, forever sneering and rolling his eyes at his good natured clerk, Rab Cratchit (Ewan Donald), and nimbly avoiding all who ask him for contributions to good causes. This sprightly version sticks fairly closely to the original story, but throws in a local legend in the furry shape of Greyfriar’s Bobby, still sleeping on his master’s grave, and in danger of being banned from the city for want of a licence. Would Ebenezer like to contribute to the cost of buying one? Bah! Humbug!

The addition of Bobby is a bit of a master stroke. This is the most family-friendly festive offering we’ve seen at the Lyceum, and the youngsters in tonight’s audience are clearly entranced by the puppet versions of Bobby and Tiny Tim. It’s not all lighthearted. There are those pesky ghosts, for starters. A little girl sitting behind me finds the presence of a headless drummer momentarily overwhelming, but she’s soon back to being delighted by all she sees.

There’s also plenty for older audience members to enjoy, not least the gorgeous set design by Neil Murray, which captures the somber beauty of Edinburgh, and when combined with Zoe Spurr’s dramatic lighting shows off the city to great effect. There’s humour too in the witty dialogue, and those who enjoy a festive singalong are well served by the presence of the Community Choir, who offer a series of rousing carols throughout the production. What else do we need to create a perfect Christmas treat? You want snow? You’ve got it!

Even a dedicated Scrooge like me emerges from this production with a warm glow inside (and I swear it’s not just the mulled wine!). Christmas cheer seems to be in rather short supply this year, so why not head on up to the Lyceum for a much-needed top up? I’m pretty sure you’ll enjoy the experience.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney