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CategoryPeriod Pieces

TIFF: Belfast

Buddy (Jude Hill) has been through a lot for a young boy. He’s witnessed violence on the streets of Belfast, he’s seen his parents struggle for money, and no matter what he does he can’t get the super smart Catholic girl at school to notice him. Ma (Caitríona Balfe) holds down the fort, raising her two young sons while her husband, Pa (Jamie Dornan) engages in one shady business or another, trying to get some money together to pay the family’s overdue taxes. This couple is young and vibrant but the wear and tear of adult life is starting to get to them. Buddy spends a lot of time with his grandparents Pop (Ciarán Hinds) and Granny (Judi Dench), kind hearted elders of the community who are determined to see things through no matter how bad they get. Then some questions arise: What happens when chaos is erupting around you? Do you escape and chose a new life somewhere else? Even if it means facing a whole new set of problems? Or do you fight to hold on that feeling of home?

You don’t have to be an expert on the history of Northern Ireland to appreciate the gravity of the situation happening in Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast. With the film’s explosive beginning and the lingering threat of violence in the background, Branagh’s film perfectly captures the angst of living in Belfast during those tumultuous years. 

This movie is essentially a tender saga about a family, with a particular focus on Buddy, remarkably played by the young Jude Hill. It’s filled with warmth, love, anxiety and a bit of melancholy. Dornan and Balfe bring a vibrancy cut with a bit of sadness to their roles. Dench and Hinds are brilliant, as per usual, as the loving grandparents who are resigned to see any normalcy in their lives slip away. I would be lying if I said Judi Dench wasn’t the reason I was interested in Belfast in the first place. I’ll watch her in anything. 

The film is shown in black and white with a few pops of color here and there. There is some great cinematography but it did feel a bit too much like it was shot in present day with a black and white filter. The set design, the costumes, etc were all spot but it was a little too sharp and crisp to feel like it was set in the past. There are several classic movie references and film clips from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, High Noon and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance are shown. It’s clear that movies are an escape for the family during this difficult time.

Belfast was part of the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival Gala Presentation slate.

TIFF: Mothering Sunday

Jane Fairchild (Odessa Young) is motherless on Mothering Sunday (a UK/Irish holiday celebrating mothers). Abandoned by her mother at a young age, Jane grew up an orphan and has spent most of her life working as a maid for the Nivens (Colin Firth and Olivia Colman). The Nivens and many of the families of the community have suffered a great loss during WWI. The only young man to come back alive was Paul Sheringham (Josh O’Connor), a law student who lives next door to the Nivens. Jane and Paul carry on a clandestine affair. Their steamy romance is fleeting because Paul must marry someone else equal to his social class. He proposes to the Emma (Emma D’Arcy), a young woman adorned in the latest fashions and from a good family but whose blood has run cold due to the tragedy that’s befallen her. Jane must come to terms with love and loss and channel that into her writing.

Directed by Eva Husson and based on the novel by Graham Swift, Mothering Sunday offers viewers a period piece that is both idyllic and cut with tragedy. It’s perfect for Downton Abbey fans looking for something a little more subdued but of the same era.

I wish Colin Firth and Olivia Colman were given more to do in the film. Due to the nature of their characters, Firth is quite reserved and Colman has a few outbursts of anger and frustration. But otherwise they’re  supporting players with small roles, Colman more so than Firth.

The main stars are O’Connor and Young who have great chemistry. Jane’s life is shown in three stages: her affair with Paul, her romance with Donald (Sope Diris), and her later years as a celebrated writer (played by Glenda Jackson).  Her two romantic partners have great respect for her. No toxic relationships here. I found this to be quite refreshing.

Mothering Sunday is part of the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival Special Presentations slate.

Sundance: Passing

In her directorial debut, Rebecca Hall adapts Nella Larsen’s novel about race relations in 1920s New York with her film Passing. The film stars Tessa Thompson as Irene, a light-skinned black woman who ventures into the city, passing as white as she runs errands and enjoys tea time at a fancy hotel. At home she lives a comfortable life with her black husband Brian (Andre Holland) and two children. One day she reunites with an old friend Clare (Ruth Negga), who is also passing for white however lives more boldly and is married to a racist white man (Alexander Skarsgård) who has no clue about Clare’s background. Clare is intrigued by Irene’s life in the black community and ventures into the world she left behind. As Clare spends less time passing, she and Irene develop an intense queer connection that threatens to destroy their marriages and possibly their relationship.

Passing is devastatingly beautiful. The film was shot in black-and-white which speaks to the binary set by culture but also makes us think about these constructs are arbitrary. The cinematography is stunning. For those who love the era, there are plenty of visual splendors to take in. The actresses wear gorgeous period appropriate costumes. (I secretly wanted to steal all of Tessa Thompson’s cloche hats).

Thompson and Negga are brilliant as Irene and Clare. Their movements are gentle and methodical; almost like a choreographed dance. Andre Holland delivers a powerful performance as the troubled Brian. The movie is less about passing as it is about the 1920s Harlem Renaissance, queer identity and the segregation of white and black communities. Rebecca Hall, who is mixed race  and has some African-American heritage on her mother’s side, offers viewers a stunning film with plenty of food for thought.

Passing premiered at the virtual 2021 Sundance Film Festival as part of their U.S. Dramatic Competition.

Update: Passing will screen in select theaters starting October 27th and will stream on Netflix November 10th.

TIFF: Portrait of a Lady on Fire

It’s been a long time since Marianne (Noémie Merlant) saw her own painting entitled Portrait of a Lady on Fire. When one of her art students brings out the portrait it stirs memories of its subject. Years ago, Marianne was hired by La Comtesse (Valeria Golino) to draw a portrait of her daughter Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). The painting was to be part of her dowry when she married a wealthy gentleman from Milan. But there’s a catch. Héloïse can’t know she’s being painted. La Comtesse comes up with a ruse to hire Marianne to be Héloïse’s walking companion. As the two take sojourns Marianne studies Héloïse features and even has the house servant Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) pose as Héloïse. As the two bond its clear to Marianne that she is falling in love with the difficult and tortured Héloïse. Both are destined for other things and must make the most of those precious days together.

Courtesy of TIFF

Portrait of a Lady on Fire/Portrait de la jeune fille en feu is a stunningly gorgeous and mesmerizing film. It’s pure poetry. The way the camera frames Marianne and Héloïse makes it look like we are in a living breathing work of art. Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel bring an intensity that is simply awe inspiring. Director and writer Céline Sciamma offers up a lesbian love story that feels honest and true. The film is so intimate that it made me uncomfortable and almost vulnerable in a way that was exhilarating. There are no real male characters. This is a world of women and women only. The sex scenes are highly subversive and real. It’s really unlike any romantic period piece I’ve ever seen. 

Portrait of a Lady on Fire had its Canadian premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival as part of their Special Presentations series.

TIFF: The Personal History of David Copperfield

At the world premiere of director Armando Iannucci’s new film The Personal History of David Copperfield, he was asked by an audience member the reasoning behind his diverse casting choices. His response: ‘Why shouldn’t I draw from 100% of the acting community?’

As I sat to watch the film I kept thinking to myself, I’m glad I lived long enough to see such a diverse cast in an adaptation of a classic novel. Naysayers step aside. This take is refreshing and modern while staying true to the spirit of the original novel. 

With a diverse cast we see an array of possibilities. And what a cast! Dev Patel is incredibly charming as David Copperfield. He brings an energy to the film that makes it electric. Tilda Swinton and Hugh Laurie are hilarious as Copperfield’s aunt and uncle Betsey Trotwood and Mr. Dick. Morfydd Clark plays both Copperfield’s mother and his love interest Dora. Ben Whishaw is creepy as all get out as the scheming Uriah Heep. Peter Capaldi is the lovable and perpetually broke scamp Mr. Micawber. Then there is Rosalind Eleazar as Agnes, Copperfield’s tough as nails best friend. Other notable cast members include Nikki Amuka-Bird as the proud and severe Mrs. Steerforth and Benedict Wong as the wine happy Mr. Wickfield. I was delighted to see Darren Boyd as the evil Edward Murdstone. He was in one of my favorite Britcoms Kiss Me Kate. 

Dev Patel, Rosalind Eleazar and Hugh Laurie in the film THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD. Photo by Dean Rogers. © 2019 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

Just like in the novel David Copperfield is telling us his own story. At the start of the film, the older Copperfield inserts himself into the story of his younger self. We see set pieces drop away to reveal the next scene. This reminded me of similar techniques used in director Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina (2012) starring Keira Knightley. These aren’t used throughout the film mostly at the start and at the end. I would have liked to see more of them but they would have distracted from the more dramatic sequences.

The Personal History of David Copperfield is a diverse retelling of Dickens’ novel that is clever, quirky, and hilarious and boasts a spectacular cast. Some critics have noted that it would have worked better as a miniseries or TV show. It did feel a bit too long but perhaps that was festival exhaustion kicking in. I for one am glad it’s a film. A miniseries might not have boasted such a wonderful cast of players.

The Personal History of David Copperfield had its world premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival as part of their Special Presentations series.

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