Film Review: Belfast (2021)

Kenneth Branagh’s memoir-of-sorts Belfast ends up an insufferably twee film despite the talent involved

“They just kick with the left foot”

There’s a line in the cracking TV show Community that often comes to mind, “just because something is in black and white doesn’t mean it’s good”. There’s no doubting that Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast, based in part at least on his own childhood, is entirely heartfelt but the filming style feels entirely like an affectation, bringing nothing to the storytelling itself.

This air of nostalgic indulgence is something that characterises the film as a whole. As it uses a child’s perspective to depict a slice of wholesome working-class family life, the backdrop to which just happens to be the start of the Troubles, there’s a weird sense of aimlessness here, a refusal to be drawn into any kind of meaningful comment on a conflict that must have loomed so large . Continue reading “Film Review: Belfast (2021)”

Countdown to new Who: Doctor Who Series 8

“You are the chief executive officer of the human race”

It was quite interesting to rewatch Series 8 of Doctor Who, one which I hadn’t revisited at all since it originally aired, as my memories thereof were not at all positive. And whilst disappointments remained – Robin Hood, 2D cartoons, the treeees! – there was also much to enjoy that I’d forgotten about. The smash-and-grab of Time Heist, the simplicity of ghost story Listen, and the ominous darkness of the finale.

I’m still in two minds about Peter Capaldi’s Twelve though, I want to like him so much more than I do, and I think you do get the sense of him feeling his way into his irascible take on the role. Jenna Coleman’s Clara benefits from being released from the yoke of impossibility to move to the forefront of several episodes and if she’s still a little hard to warm to, that finale really is superbly done. And then there’s Michelle Gomez, stealing the whole damn thing magnificently! Continue reading “Countdown to new Who: Doctor Who Series 8”

DVD Review: Henry V (1989)

”Customs curtsy to great kings”

It is instructive to watch performances from Kenneth Branagh such as these, to counteract the ones he is currently giving as part of his company’s year-long residency at the Garrick. They have their fans to be sure but for me, there’s something much more powerful about the subtlety on display as a younger actor as opposed to the broader, louder turns he’s given thus far. Sacrilegious as it may be to admit it, I have no real love for Henry V as a play but there is no denying this excellent piece of film-making, directed by Branagh in his debut in the chair.

Taking a grittier, more ‘realistic’ take on this history pays dividends, not least in minimising the slapstick for which I care little but also emphasising an emotional truthfulness that doesn’t always come across on stage. Only the stoniest of hearts could remain unmoved by Judi Dench’s achingly poignant farewell to Falstaff, or be swept up in the playful flirtiness between the King and Emma Thompson’s Princess Katherine, or be chilled by the declaration at Harfleur, Branagh showing us the young monarch taking the brutal responsibility of a warrior.  Continue reading “DVD Review: Henry V (1989)”

DVD Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1999)

“A part of love as dreams, sighs, wishes, and tears”

Perhaps taking influence from the roaring success of Kenneth Branagh’s sun-soaked Much Ado About Nothing, Michael Hoffman saw Hollywood’s return to Shakespeare transplant A Midsummer Night’s Dream to a luscious nineteenth century Tuscan setting. So Athens becomes the town of Monte Athena and the soundtrack is suffused with the strains of Verdi, Donizetti and Bellini but in many other respects, it’s a fairly traditional interpretation – a plethora of bicycles aside.

And though it might not seem that big of a deal, it is indicative of Hoffman’s initial approach to tinker where tinkering is not needed. So the heart sinks as the lovers’ comic business is rough-handled onto two wheels and Nick Bottom gains a (mute) wife, but spirits soon rise again as the film begins to trust the text and just enjoy itself. Calista Flockhart proves a revelation as a genuinely emotionally bruised Helena, chasing Christian Bale’s disinterested Demetrius and fending off Dominic West’s magically enhanced interest, much to Anna Friel’s Hermia’s chagrin. Continue reading “DVD Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1999)”

DVD Review: A Midwinter’s Tale (1995)

“I’m clean, I’m conscientious and I travel with my own tits”

Where else would you get to see Adrian Scarborough’s Richard III but in passing in a random Kenneth Branagh backstage movie. His movie as a director in which he does not star, A Midwinter’s Tale (or In The Bleak Midwinter as it appears to be known in some places) is a rather sweet comedy that makes for a light-hearted take on the often-time serious Shakespeare for which he was getting increasingly known.

Though fun, it is an acutely observed look at the itinerant life of an actor and the different ways in which people deal with its stresses. Unemployed for a year, Michael Maloney’s Joe offers to help out his sister’s local church by mounting a Christmas production of Hamlet, gathering a cast of similar odds and sods who are also available at the last minute. And together, even with the copious issues this motley crew bring with them, theatrical magic somehow begins to bloom.  Continue reading “DVD Review: A Midwinter’s Tale (1995)”

DVD Review: Legend

“It took a lot of love to hate him”

On the one hand, Legend has a pair of cracking performances from Tom Hardy, who plays both Ronnie and Reggie Kray, that makes it an instantly interesting proposition. On the other, it’s a rather shallow, even sanitised version of events that delves into zero psychological depth and smacks of a irresponsibly glamourised take on violence that plays up to the enduring roll-call of British crime flicks that just keep on coming.

Writer and director Brian Helgeland begins with the Krays already established as East End hoodlums and tracks their rise to power as they seek to control more and more and have all of the capital under their thumb. This is seen through the prism of Reggie’s relationship and eventual marriage to Frances Shea, the teenage sister of his driver, a sprightly turn from Emily Browning when she’s allowed to act but too often she’s forced to deliver syrupy voiceover.  Continue reading “DVD Review: Legend”

TV Review: The Rack Pack, BBC iPlayer

“Think of it as mental snooker”

For somebody whose exposure to snooker was mainly limited to BBC1’s Saturday night show Big Break (and how I loved the trick shots), you might not have expected a drama about snooker to be high on my list of things to watch. But I’m nothing if not tricksy and the announcement of a play about snooker in Sheffield, The Nap featuring a rare foray into theatre for Jack O’Connell, has left me wondering if indeed I really want to schlep up to South Yorkshire to sit through a play about a sport of which I know very little.

Plus The Rack Pack also has a Treadaway (Luke) in it, which always ranks highly in my book, and so I sat down to watch it, hoping that John Virgo might at least have a tiny cameo in it. Written by Mark Chappell, Alan Connor and Shaun Pye, the comedy drama focuses on the rivalry between Alex Higgins and Steve Davis during the 70s and 80s when televised snooker was becoming increasingly popular and so the game became more professional but also more commercialised, each man having their own role to play in this. Continue reading “TV Review: The Rack Pack, BBC iPlayer”

DVD Review: Nativity

“As if Hollywood would come to Coventry”

For whatever reason, I hadn’t ever gotten round to watching festive film Nativity since its release in 2009 but its broadcast on BBC1 meant I finally got the opportunity to be thoroughly won over by its lo-fi festive spirit. Written by Debbie Isitt but also partially improvised by the cast, it nails that typical (successful) Brit-flick style with all its deprecatory charm and underdog spirit, along with an unexpectedly effective original musical score.

Nativity centres on an inter-school rivalry in Coventry, where private primary school Oakmoor consistently produce the best-received nativity show. This year, the headteacher of St Bernadette’s has something to say about that and so puts curmudgeonly Christmas-hater Paul Maddens (Martin Freeman) in charge of their show, aware that his old drama school friend and rival Gordon Shakespeare (Jason Watkins) is the one succeeding at Oakmoor, Continue reading “DVD Review: Nativity”

DVD Review: Made In Dagenham

“All over the country, women are getting less because they’re women”

I thought this would make an appropriate film review for International Women’s Day, it being a celebration of the sewing machinists whose ground-breaking 1968 strike at the Ford Dagenham plant laid the basis for the Equal Pay Act of 1970, enshrining the right of equal pay for equal work. Nigel Cole’s 2010 film, written by William Ivory around the real life events, has been turned into a musical which will be opening at the end of the year, Gemma Arterton taking the lead role under Rupert Goold’s direction, but she has a lot to live up against the glorious Sally Hawkins and what is a rather lovely film.

Made in Dagenham very much fits into the well-established working class Brit flick template – think The Full Monty, Brassed Off, Calendar Girls… – in that it is never particularly challenging, it revels in period cliché and can definitely be described as heart-warming. But also like those films, it does have a little grit at its base, realism (of sorts) is allowed to temper the optimism that drives this huge moment of social change, the individual struggles of these women co-existing with the collective battle to great effect and backed by a super cast, it is frequently moving. Continue reading “DVD Review: Made In Dagenham”