Jamie Dornan

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

A Private War

17/02/19

Marie Colvin was an extraordinary woman, and Rosamund Pike, it turns out, is exactly the right actor to convey her strength and singularity. Her performance as the celebrated war reporter is gutsy and bold, nuanced and considered – quite possibly a career best.

A Private War is a biopic, detailing the last ten years of Colvin’s life, following her from war zone to war zone, highlighting the personal toll – both physical and mental – of uncovering and revealing so many unpalatable truths. It’s a worthwhile endeavour, but it doesn’t quite pay off.

Maybe it’s because Colvin is famous as an observer and interpreter of stories; as the central character, she seems misplaced. It’s as if the important stuff – the stuff she’d want to focus on – is happening off-screen, and we’re reduced to watching her reactions instead. Of course it matters what happens to those who chronicle events, but their narrative is inevitably secondary to the events themselves. Here, that order is subverted, and I don’t think it wholly succeeds. I feel curiously distanced, from the wars as well as Colvin, never emotionally engaged.

Still, there’s much to praise here too. Pike isn’t the only one to deliver a great performance: Jamie Dornan does a sterling job as Colvin’s sidekick, photographer Paul Conroy, and Tom Hollander injects warmth and like-ability into his portrayal of otherwise hard-headed newspaper editor Sean Ryan. Stanley Tucci provides the much-needed – both in the movie and, I imagine, in Colvin’s real life – light relief, as her London lover, the only person with whom we see her truly relax.

We are shown the horrors of war – a mass grave in Iraq, besieged towns in Syria – and the awful relentlessness of it all, the despair of those affected. But it never gets personal; we never learn enough about the individuals. ‘Find the people,’ Colvin tells rookie journalist, Kate Richardson (Faye Marsay), ‘and tell their stories.’

It’s a shame the movie doesn’t take its protagonist’s advice.

3.8 stars

Susan Singfield

Anthropoid

anthropoid

11/09/16

Based on the true story of the WWII Operation Anthropoid mission to assassinate Nazi third-in-command Reinhard Heydrich, this is a hard-hitting film, which offers very little respite from the bleakness it portrays. It’s unflinching, forcing its audience to confront the awful brutality of war, the vile atrocities we commit in the name of patriotism or fear. And it’s quite difficult to watch.

It’s 1942; Jan Kubis (Jamie Dornan) and Josef Gabcik (Cillian Murphy) have been tasked  with assassinating the Nazi leader of the protectorate, both to reassert the legitimacy of the exiled Czechoslovakian government, and as retribution for his harsh rule. Heydrich (who was also in charge of the so-called Final Solution) was clearly a hateful man, and this film focuses firmly on the victims’ experience; the Nazis are portrayed as a terrifying mass, with nothing to differentiate between them; they are uniformly evil. And that’s fair enough, I think; that’s how they would have appeared. I don’t imagine the people whose countries they occupied cared much about individual German soldiers’ situations, nor how propaganda and forced-conscription would have swelled the Nazi ranks. This film belongs to Jan and Josef, and the courage they and their tiny band of resistance fighters showed in taking on such a mighty foe.

The first half is slow and meticulous, focusing on the minutiae of living secretly and planning. Their developing relationships with Maria (Charlotte le Bon) and Lenka (Anna Geislerová) are subtly told, and the sense of imminent threat is ever present.

Once the assassination attempt is under way, the pace picks up, and the tension is unbearable. Indeed, the final battle is a fast-paced, relentless shoot-out, a bloodbath of the most ugly kind. No punches are pulled here. We see bullets rip through flesh. We see people being tortured until they lose all sense of who they are. But, ultimately, this is a tale of hope. Yes, human beings do terrible things. We can’t deny it. But other, better human beings will always try to bring them down. And, sometimes, they will succeed.

4.4 stars

Susan Singfield

The 9th Life of Louis Drax

 

drax.jpg

03/08/16

Helmed by horror maestro Alexandre Aja (but far more restrained than we’ve come to expect from him), this strange, complex and intriguing movie is essentially the story of a boy in a coma.

Louis Drax (Aiden Longworth) is accident-prone and has suffered a series of disasters throughout his short life. The most recent one, a plunge from a cliff top whilst on a picnic with his parents, is the most serious yet. Though by all rights the fall should have killed him, he’s somehow clinging on to life – and having some very disturbing dreams while he’s at it. Coma specialist Dr Allen Pascal (Jamie Dornan) is called in to provide help, though his attentions seem to be more focused on Louis’s mother, Natalie (Sarah Gadon), who soon has the good doctor catering to her every whim. But how did Louis come to fall from that cliff? Could it be that he was actually pushed by his father, Peter (Aaron Paul), who has now gone missing?

At first, this plays like a straightforward psychological mystery, but Max Minghella’s screenplay, based on Liz Jensen’s novel, is intent on drawing in all manner of genre elements, so much so that the film sometimes seems to be bursting at the seams trying to contain them. Not everything here works (there’s an uneasy undertone of misogyny at times, and the portrayal of mental illness is problematic too), but it still fields more original ideas than your average Hollywood movie and the parts that do work are very good indeed. I particularly liked the fact that Longworth’s titular hero is about a million miles away from your usual adorable uber-poppet. He’s actually a bit of a twat, sneering and posturing and treating every adult he encounters with utter contempt – yet we’re still rooting for him, hoping he awakes to enjoy a longer life.

The 9th Life of Louis Drax will keep you hooked and guessing right up to the very end, and there’s also the bonus of some absolutely ravishing cinematography along the way. But I think it’s safe to say that this won’t be everybody’s cup of haemoglobin.

4 stars

Philip Caveney