Director Kenneth Branagh on the set of Belfast. Picture Credit: Rob Youngson/Focus Features

Belfast boy

Christopher Silvester reviews two semi-autobiographical movies: Oscar-contender Belfast and arthouse The Souvenir

On Cinema

This article is taken from the March 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Kenneth Branagh’s semi-autobiographical Belfast, which he wrote and directed, is set in 1969 in the city of his birth. Nine-year-old Buddy is a Protestant boy living in a mixed street alongside Catholics. He has trouble reconciling the hellfire and damnation preached by his own community’s priest with Catholic notions of confession and absolution.

Buddy loves his maternal grandparents, Granny and Pop (Best Supporting Oscar nominations for Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds), and he adores the cinema. There are clips from two Westerns, Fred Zinneman’s High Noon and John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, that resonate with Buddy when he witnesses showdowns between Catholics and Protestants, and that will have elicited a warm glow from cinephiles.

There are moments of emotional bonding when Buddy’s family go out to see One Million Years B.C. (starring Raquel Welch as a “Californian” cavewoman) and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Branagh allows the vivid colours of these film clips to invade the black and white canvas of his personal story — like Buddy’s family, Branagh’s family moved away from the growing violence of Belfast to English suburbia, in his case to the Thames Valley town of Reading.

Belfast is written with emotional depth and humour

Out in cinemas shortly before the Branagh-directed remake of Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile in which he does an over-egged and over-moustachioed Poirot for a second time, Belfast is written with emotional depth and humour, and directed with joyful self-assurance and well-judged shot selections. 

Belfast is second favourite to win Best Picture (behind The Power of the Dog) and Branagh is second favourite to win Best Director (after Jane Campion) and Best Original Screenplay (after Licorice Pizza). My hunch is that Belfast’s feel-good factor will ultimately win out over The Power of the Dog’s nihilism with the Academy members in the Best Picture category, though Campion will probably win Best Director.

From Fellini’s Amarcord and Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets, to the Terence Davies films Distant Voices, Still Lives and The Long Day Closes, the semi-autobiographical urge has long proved a rich resource for filmmakers. Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, was 60 years old last year.

Whilst never an Oscar contender, Joanna Hogg’s semi-autobiographical The Souvenir Part II, out in cinemas last month, is avowedly an arthouse movie about the making of an arthouse movie. 

In The Souvenir, Hogg’s 2019 film, Honor Swinton Byrne plays Julie, a film student who lives in a modern flat in Knightsbridge, and is dating Anthony, a young Foreign Office civil servant, possibly even a spy. He is intellectually self-confident, with seemingly mature opinions, but also a bombastic dandy, ex-army and almost certainly Oxbridge, but from a Geordie parental background. 

His dark secret is his heroin habit. Julie, who is from a middle-class, countryside background, is beginning to discover her sexuality and attempting to find her voice as an artist when Anthony, having grown to depend on handouts Julie receives from her parents, at first has a heroin crisis and later dies of an overdose. 

In Part II, Julie is seeking to come to terms with his death and to make her final-year student film. We get to know two characters from the first film rather better; her fellow film student, Garance, played by Ariane Labed, and another film student, the waspish Patrick, played by Richard Ayoade, who delivers some of the film’s funniest lines. 

Joanna Hogg is a graduate of the National Film and Television School, and Julie’s film school teachers are somewhat Corbynish in appearance but also doubtful about whether she has the inner drive and insight to become an authentic filmmaker. Her student film about the mysterious Anthony, when finished, is pretentious beyond belief and yet has flashes of brilliance.

It remains to be seen whether Hogg will be able to break out from the comforting embrace of semi-autobiography

Whereas other directors seek to convey a sense of period with elaborate scenes backed by lavish budgets, Hogg uses subtle art direction, musical quotes from Eighties and Nineties pop, and a shooting style that precludes busy urban streets — always the most difficult aspect of period to recreate. A loud bang heard from her flat and radio news bulletins in the first movie remind us that the story is set in a time when the IRA was still planting bombs in London. Her preference for static compositions and long takes, and for occasionally rambling conversations, is reminiscent of French New Wave director Eric Rohmer.

And whereas Branagh portrays the warm-hearted intimacy of Buddy’s family, Hogg captures the more brittle, relationship of only-child Julie with her parents who reside in a rural shire. Are they leading lives of quiet desperation or are they fundamentally at ease with themselves yet nonetheless concerned about the situation of their London-dwelling daughter? 

Hogg resists the temptation to offer an obvious explanation, but treats them with dignity. One wonders how close her real parents are to their depiction here, just as one wonders how close Branagh’s parents are to Buddy’s. 

Despite the imprimatur of Martin Scorsese as an executive producer on both The Souvenir and The Souvenir Part II, it remains to be seen whether Hogg, like him, will be able to break out from the comforting embrace of semi-autobiography and whether she can make her camera move a little from time to time.

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