Review: Belfast and Spencer — Movies for the Rest of Us with Bill Newcott

Bill Newcott reviews two movies that play with historical events: director Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast; and Spencer starring Kristen Stewart.

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Belfast

⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

Rating: PG-13

Run Time: 1 hour 38 minutes

Stars: Jude Hill, Jamie Dornan, Caitriona Balfe, Judi Dench, Ciarán Hinds

Writer/Director: Kenneth Branagh

 

Spencer

⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

Rating: R

Run Time: 1 hour 57 minutes

Stars: Kristen Stewart, Jack Farthing, Timothy Spall

Writer: Steven Knight

Director: Pablo Larraín

 Both films reviewed at the Toronto International Film Festival

 

Film doesn’t always offer an authentic vision of the past, but a skillful filmmaker can illuminate history by framing it in a uniquely thoughtful — and sometimes personal — manner. Two new films take radically different approaches to momentous events of the past half-century or so, and each in its own way finds more than a kernel of universal truth.

Kenneth Branagh — he of the five Oscar nominations for acting, writing, and directing — was born in Belfast, Ireland, in 1960, which means he was way too young to understand when the world exploded around him in the Catholic/Protestant “Troubles” of 1969. In Belfast, Branagh revisits that turbulent time, viewing the violence, confusion, and hatred through the eyes of a 9-year-old boy named Buddy.

Buddy’s family is an anomaly in the cheek-to-jowl Catholic community they call home: despite being Protestants, they share a deep love and fierce sense of community with their neighbors. On the narrow lane outside their modest home, mothers share gossip between windows as they send their youngsters into the cobblestone street to play. Fathers come home from work en masse, lunch pails in hand, more concerned with the dodgy job market than with whether or not Pope Paul VI is the true Vicar of Christ.

Elsewhere in Belfast, however, a war is brewing — and one day, as Buddy and his pals cavort in the street, the war comes home in the form of a Protestant mob swinging bats, hurling Molotov cocktails, and smashing windows in an amateur night version of Kristallnacht. Soon tanks of the British Army are rumbling through the street, and a neighborhood watch group sets up a barbed wire-lined checkpoint at the end of the block.

The world has gone crazy, but Buddy remains a little boy. He still ventures out to play. He gets into kid-level trouble at a candy store. And he is falling hopelessly in love with a little blonde Catholic girl who lives across the street. This is the magic of Belfast: Branagh, undoubtedly sourcing his own childhood, reminds us in every frame that even as adults do their worst to try and ruin the world for everyone, there are corners of the child’s heart and soul they can never invade.

Of his young star — fair-haired, wide-eyed Jude Hill — Branagh asks only that he be a child. In return, the boy provides the film with a wondrous, open-hearted center. When Buddy hesitantly asks his father, “Will we have to leave Belfast?” there is no hint of fear or resentment — only the tone of a child who has entrusted his care, without reservation, to the hands of a man he knows will make the right decision.

As Buddy’s father, Jamie Dornan (Fifty Shades of Grey) seems to breathe decency and affection for his wife, child, and aging parents. Outlander heroine Caitriona Balfe costars as Buddy’s mom, a brave and resourceful woman who, against all good sense, insists that the family has to stay put in Belfast.

Presiding over the family unit are Buddy’s paternal grandparents, warmly and wonderfully played by Judi Dench and Belfast-born actor Ciarán Hinds. While the film’s stunning black-and-white photography serves to soften the peril that surrounds Buddy’s family, it also draws sharply-etched images of the old couple’s faces. They are of an era past, those wrinkles and blemishes tell us, but they also bear witness to a century of irrational countrymen in hate with each other.

Heartfelt and enthralling, Branagh’s memory poem lifts the spirit even as it breaks the heart.

 

While Belfast draws heavily on Branagh’s still-vivid first-hand memories, Pablo Larraín’s Spencer, a drama about the last days of Princess Diana’s marriage to Prince Charles, trades in the unknowable. Few doors are shut as tightly as those of Britain’s Royal Family, and so Larraín builds his own historical reality, imagining the minds and motivations of all involved in the most spectacular marital disaster since Liz and Dick.

The director pulled off much the same trick a few years ago in Jackie, imagining Jaqueline Kennedy Onassis’s first night back in the White House following the assassination of her husband. Natalie Portman wore the pink pillbox hat in that film; this time Kristen Stewart is adorned with Di’s trademark feathered shag hair style, resplendent in a procession of designer outfits.

The setting is Christmas, 1991, at Queen Elizabeth’s Sandringham estate. (Seriously, how many homes does this woman have?) As is customary, the entire Royal Family has gathered for a highly choreographed period of stilted frivolity. When Diana arrives — late, as everyone notes — she is immediately presented with the series of outfits she’ll be expected to wear for the various events, which range from conversation-less dinners to joyless pheasant shooting expeditions.

The relationship between Diana and Charles (Jack Farthing, asked to do little more than sigh and harrumph) has long since swirled down the loo, and what Larraín gets absolutely right here is the emotional exhaustion that ensues when people who kind of hate each other are forced to spend civil time together. The Royals roll their eyes at Diana’s insubordination; Diana sinks defeated into her plush chairs, enlivened only when she gets to spend private time with her two sons. (Not surprisingly, the film’s most affecting moments come during those maternal moments.)

As Diana wanders, sad-eyed, from room to room, Spencer often plays like a gothic horror movie without the scares. The film also suffers from inflicting upon the viewer heapin’ helpings of those pained bad-blood family marathons; after all, if no one up on the screen wants to be here, why should we? But the enterprise is saved by Stewart, who has mastered Diana’s winsome side glance and that throaty, almost strangled voice that always tipped us off as to how miserable she was.

We can’t know if Diana’s last days as a royal were this fraught with melancholy drama, nor if she really had regular visions of Henry VIII’s unfortunate Anne Boleyn. But Spencer gets at a larger, if timeworn truth: Heavy is the head that wears the tiara.

Featured images: Spencer: Pablo Larrain/NEON; Belfast: Rob Youngson/Focus Features

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