It is 1969: the camera tilts up and pans across to reveal a cheerfully busy Belfast neighbourhood: terraced homes, children playing, mothers calling them in to tea, men putting the world to rights. Shot in black and white, this animated tableau recalls the lyrics of ‘Penny Lane’.
In the middle of the mock battle, a small blond boy brandishes a bin lid to fend off the charge mounted by his friends. Then, without the slightest warning, the conflict becomes all too real, as rioters suddenly invade the street, hurling Molotov cocktails, their snarled features warning of worse to come. The boy’s mother rushes out to retrieve her son, grabbing the bin lid, which is transformed in an instant from a makeshift toy into a real-life shield to protect him from projectiles and flames.
Thus does the opening scene of Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast (general release, 21 January) – and the specific moment when a child’s toy becomes a barrier against bloodshed – encapsulate the movie’s greatest audacity and its principal theme: the director’s juxtaposition of sectarian tensions that often spill over into outright violence with a semi-autobiographical account of a perfectly normal family life and the idyll of boyhood innocence.
Cinema has long engaged with the Troubles, the suffering of Northern Ireland, and the consequences of the conflict on the mainland; often to magnificent effect. Pat O’Connor’s Cal (1984) evokes the ambivalence of a young IRA volunteer, way over his head in the murder of an RUC officer and the aftermath of the slaughter.
Steve McQueen’s Hunger (2008), his account of the 1981 Maze Prison hunger strikes, is one of the best films of the past 25 years (watch this unforgettable dialogue between Michael Fassbender as Bobby Sands and Liam Cunningham as a priest trying to talk him out of the protest that will claim his life). Yann Demange’s ‘71 (2014) evokes the turmoil of the Belfast streets into which a British squaddie is cast when he is separated from his unit. (For more on this history, try Brian McIroy’s Shooting To Kill: Filmmaking And The Troubles In Northern Ireland.)
But in his 18th outing as a director, Branagh pointedly exiles himself from this well-established genre of relentless intensity and uninterrupted politicisation. What makes Belfast so powerful and so compelling is that much of its 98 minutes is devoted to the unremarkable day-to-day routine of nine-year-old Buddy (superbly played by Jude Hill), the bickering of his parents over work and tax bills (Jamie Dornan and Caitriona Balfe), and the wry interventions of his grandfather (Ciarán Hinds) and grandmother (Judi Dench).
In almost every scene – beautifully filmed by Haris Zambarloukos – we are reminded: these are ordinary people, not fledgling warriors straining at the leash to wage civil war. They wish with every fibre of their being that the rough beast of history was not knocking so insistently at their door.
Drawing deeply on his own childhood – Branagh’s family moved to England in May, 1970, as he describes in his memoir Beginning – the film relishes Buddy’s rich imaginative life and whimsy: he wears his Thunderbirds outfit on Christmas Day, loves Star Trek, goes to see Chitty Chitty Bang Bang with his family (the film within a film retaining its rich technicolor in contrast to the black and white that persists at its fringes).
As a regular nine-year-old, Buddy is more absorbed by his Thor comic – a deft nod to the fact that Branagh went on to direct the Marvel movie about the god of thunder in 2011 – than by the gathering storm on the streets of his home city. Why agonise about sectarian division when you have a crush on the clever Catholic girl at school? In its preoccupation with childhood and its rites of passage, Belfast owes less to political cinema than to, say, Fellini’s Amarcord (1973) or Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso (1988).
It is all the more horrific, then, when the local Loyalist thug delivers a jaw-crunching blow to a neighbour who refuses to comply with the new regime of “cash or commitment”. Standing between such barbarism and the warmth of family life is Dornan’s character – who, in Buddy’s eyes, is as gigantic in his heroism as Gary Cooper in High Noon.
Drawing again on his own experience and making the most of the chemistry between Dornan and Balfe, Branagh portrays Buddy’s parents as a couple of small means but defiant glamour; deeply in love in spite of the challenges they face.
Of course, brute power cannot be kept at bay forever. Some have criticised the use of Van Morrison’s music as the movie’s soundtrack as too breezy and sentimental. But it is precisely because Morrison’s Celtic Soul pays as much attention to “the dark end of the street” as to the “bright side of the road” that the choice is perfect. ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ is a song about innocent love, but it is also a song about “Days when the rains came”.
With a growing sense of dread, then, we know that the oscillation between safe intimacy and metastasising violence will not last forever: one must prevail. Buddy’s family cannot postpone the moment of decision – to stay in Belfast or seek a different life elsewhere? – indefinitely.
Belfast is a film about the moments – scarcely confined to Northern Ireland in the late 20th Century – when violence, extortion and religious hatred intervene to force agonising choices and compel those who love their rootedness reluctantly to contemplate escape. It shows that ideological and tribal conflict, in Ulster, the Balkans, or Afghanistan, not only leads to bloodshed, but sprays psychological shrapnel across the landscape of the communities it disfigures.
Branagh’s dedication is unambiguous: “For the ones who stayed. For the ones who left. And for all the ones who were lost.” His film is set in the Troubles, but not defined by them, and, for this spirit of nuance alone, it deserves the highest accolades.
Here are this week’s recommendations.
Munich – The Edge of War (selected cinemas now, Netflix 21 January)
When, on Wednesday, David Davis called for Boris Johnson to resign, borrowing the words used by Leo Amery against Neville Chamberlain in 1940 – “In the name of God, go!” – one was reminded once again of the enduring role still played in contemporary political life by Churchill’s predecessor. Based on Robert’s Harris’s 2017 thriller, Christian Schwochow’s account of the 1938 Munich agreement seeks to reprieve Chamberlain (wonderfully played by Jeremy Irons) from history’s harsh verdict, portraying him as a true statesman haunted by the carnage of the First World War and determined, at the very least, to buy Britain time to re-arm. George MacKay is excellent as Hugh Legat, the PM’s aide, recruited by MI6 to make contact with his university friend Paul von Hartmann (Jannis Niewöhner), who will pass him a memorandum proving that Hitler’s ambitions to conquer Europe stretch far beyond the Sudetenland. The idea that Chamberlain was playing a cunning game all along cannot survive a reading of (amongst many other books) David Faber’s Munich, 1938: Appeasement and World War II (2008) or Tim Bouverie’s magnificent Appeasing Hitler: Chamberlain, Churchill and the Road to War (2019). With that caveat in mind, however, Munich – The Edge of War still deserves to be enjoyed as a gripping historical entertainment, capturing perfectly the profound malaise and foreboding that characterise the prelude to catastrophe.
Servant – Season three (Apple TV+, 21 January)
Aside from a few gems – Ted Lasso, Foundation and Swan Song spring to mind – Apple TV+ has been surprisingly underwhelming since its UK launch in November 2019. The greatest exception, for me at any rate, has been Servant, an absorbing psychological thriller that has given showrunner M. Night Shyamalan a broad canvas that arguably suits him better than feature films. The premise is a satisfying brew of weird and conventional: Sean (Toby Kebbell) and Dorothy (Lauren Ambrose) employ a nanny, Leanne (Nell Tiger Free), to look after their baby, Jericho; except that Jericho appears to have died aged 13 weeks, and been replaced temporarily by a doll as part of Dorothy’s therapeutic recovery from full-blown breakdown. Leanne, we learned in the first two seasons, is connected to a very sinister cult. And Dorothy’s brother, Julian (Rupert Grint, no longer recognisable as Ron Weasley), is a decadent, drug-abusing presence in the house, clearly guarding many secrets. The pace is deliberately and successfully slow, the shocks and twists deployed to maximum effect. Like the spooky figures from Leanne’s past, this is a series that truly creeps up on you.
Ozark – Season four (Netflix, 21 January)
The rise of prestige television has nurtured a fascinating sub-genre, tracing the journey of respectable middle-class individuals and families into the subterranean world of crime: most notably, in Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad, and, more recently, Mark O’Rowe’s Temple (see Creative Sensemaker, 28 October). Ozark, now entering its final season, has been a fabulous exploration of a couple’s descent from conventional professional life in Chicago to the management of a full-blown crime empire in Missouri’s Ozarks. The core of the show is the relationship between Marty and Helen Byrde (Jason Bateman and Laura Linney, both brilliant) and their metamorphosis from stumbling interlopers in a world of maximum danger to seasoned money launderers and drug dealers: negotiating frostily with Mexican cartel bosses, corrupt politicians and the FBI, as if born to the task. As the story resumes, even their children, Jonah (Skylar Gaertner) and Charlotte (Sofia Hublitz), are fully immersed in what has become the family business. This season – which has been divided into two halves, each of seven episodes – draws us deeper than ever into the world of the Navarro cartel, but also keeps the spotlight on local characters, especially Ruth Langmore, played by the Emmy-winning Julia Garner. No less than Walter White seeking “empire” in Breaking Bad, the Byrdes now find themselves addicted to the very underworld that they so desperately wanted to escape in the show’s first acts. Not to be missed.
Reality+: Virtual Worlds and the Problems of Philosophy – David J. Chalmers (Allen Lane, 25 January)
A month after the release of The Matrix Resurrections (see Creative Sensemaker, 16 December), here comes a masterly guide to the philosophical questions posed by the Wachowskis’ movie franchise – and much more besides. David J. Chalmers, a professor at New York University and philosopher specialising in the nature of consciousness, agrees that the fast-developing technology of simulated realities represents a fundamental challenge to humanity, personhood and the conventions of social interaction. Where he parts company with most of his predecessors – and with The Matrix – is that he does not regard simulated worlds as secondary to reality. “Simulations are not illusions,” he says. “Virtual worlds are real. Virtual objects are real.” Yes, they are composed of bits, rather than quarks and electrons. But so what? As the present generation of (relatively clunky) VR goggles is replaced by brain-computer interfaces that enable us to experience simulated realities with all our senses, “life in virtual worlds will often be the right life to choose.” And if that’s true, what to do with the unexercised, immobile, decaying body (the “indeterminate blob”, as Robert Nozick has put it)? And who controls and owns these metaverses? It is much to Chalmers’ credit that his book – though it weighs in at 500 pages – is so readable and so attuned to the questions that the lay reader as well as the professional philosopher wants answered.
East Side Voices: Essays celebrating East and Southeast Asian Identity in Britain – ed. Helena Lee (Sceptre)
In February 2020, Helena Lee, who is Acting Deputy Editor of Harper’s Bazaar, founded the East Side Voices cultural salon, launched with two events at the Standard Hotel in London. Her objective, as she explains in this excellent collection of essays and poems, was to provide a platform for the “visible but unseen” East and Southeast Asian diaspora living in Britain. “Our stories weren’t seen as valid enough to be told or reported on,” she writes, “and so we’ve long been excluded from the cultural canon. I certainly didn’t want my children growing up in a world that did not see, acknowledge, or validate them.” This is a powerful response to that bias – unconscious or otherwise – its 18 contributions full of reflection, experience and nuanced discussion of identity and bigotry. The novelist Sharlene Teo is fascinating on the “white, western gaze” and the “pan-Asian idealised woman … airbrushed of any troublesome signifiers of contradiction or particularity”; I was also struck by the stories told by the Scottish-born actor, Katie Leung, who played Cho Chang in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005) and the author Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, who writes powerfully about the significance of names. An important addition to the growing literature of contemporary identity and cultural politics.
The Power Law: Venture Capital and the Art of Disruption – Sebastian Mallaby (Allen Lane, January 25)
Notionally a study of contemporary finance and the technical operations of capital, Sebastian Mallaby’s latest book is really an inquiry into the nature of power in the 21st Century, where it lies, and why. The forces lurking behind the tech giants of our era – Google, Amazon, Facebook, Uber, SpaceX – are venture funds of extraordinary ambition who have bet huge sums of money with an often primal hunger. Yes, their gambles very often do not pay off. But those that do reward investors on a colossal scale: it is this ratio, this power law, that gives the book its title. Full of anecdotes and personal detail, it tells the remarkable story of firms such as Kleiner Perkins, Accel, Benchmark, and Andreessen Horowitz – and the extent to which, in practice, they based their bets on the basis of gut instinct and assessment of personality, as much as data and the mind boggling work of their quants. Many will read this, and rightly so, to understand more about tech or investment. For me, it was one of the most illuminating books about political reality – by which I mean where power is truly distributed – that I have encountered in years.
Fortune has been fickle in its handling of Matthew Murphy, Tord Øverland Knudsen and Dan Haggis. Waiting until 2007 to release their first album, the Wombats ran the risk of looking like an afterthought to the Arctic Monkeys, Bloc Party and Franz Ferdinand and the very definition of so-called “Landfill Indie”. Yet, quite unexpectedly, they were introduced to a new generation by Oliver Nelson’s TikTok remix of their 2015 single “Greek Tragedy” – which has notched up more than 175 million Spotify streams. This means that their fifth studio album – and the international tour that accompanies it – is aimed at teens as much as their older fans. Kicking off with Knudsen’s earthy bass, Fix Yourself, Not the World scarcely conceals its ambition to deliver a series of stadium-friendly anthems, mixing punk pop (‘Worry’, ‘Wildfire’) with genre-mixing dance tunes like ‘People Don’t Change People, Time Does’. Extremely catchy, lyrically knowing and full of whispers of a fabulous summer to come.
Sir William Walton: A Centenary Celebration – Roderick Williams, Tamsin Dalley, Kevin Whately, Orchestra of the Swan, Bruce O’Neil (21 January)
“Façade is my first name,” said William Walton in 1963. What the great English composer meant was that his extraordinary career had its true beginnings in a private performance on 24 January 1922, of Edith Sitwell’s poems, set to his music, at the home of her brothers Sacheverell and Osbert in Carlyle Square, Chelsea. To mark the centenary of that moment – a milestone in English eccentricity and the experimentalism of the Jazz Era – this fine release by SOMM Recordings reminds the listener of how daring the Walton-Sitwell creative salon truly was. By 1944, of course, that reckless zeitgeist had long been replaced by the wartime spirit, captured in Olivier’s Henry V – for which Walton wrote the soundtrack (as he did for Hamlet and Richard III). Listen out for the bracing narration by Kevin Whately, best known for his roles in Inspector Morse and Lewis. It’s 600 years since Henry V died, by the way – in case you were wondering.
The Brighton-born producer Si Green – AKA Bonobo – has long suffered from the vaguely patronising tendency of music critics to categorise trip hop artists dismissively as “nu jazz”, “ambient electronica” or (what they really mean) “wallpaper music”. His seventh studio album is a terrific response to this charge, with its changes of pace, voraciously eclectic influences and creative intelligence. As Green has said, he uses “electronic methods to make non-electronic music” – which is to say that this is very much more than the soundtrack to an afterparty in a loft. Listen out for Chicago singer Jamila Woods on ‘Tides’ and Kadhja Bonet on ‘Day by Day’. There is a ready-to-go dancefloor gem in ‘Sapien’; and if you want to hear what hope sounds like when channelled through bluetooth and a good set of cans, try ‘Otomo’ – complete with assistance from London producer O’Flynn and (but of course) a Bulgarian choir.
Don’t forget to send in your own recommendations for Creative Sensemaker to firstname.lastname@example.org.
That’s all for now. Enjoy the weekend and take care of yourselves.
Editor and Partner
Photographs courtesy Rob Youngson/Focus Features, Pathé, Sky, Netflix, Studio Canal, Apple TV+