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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 Review: Red Joan


by Raquel Stecher

Red Joan
dir. Trevor Nunn
Starring Judi Dench, Sophie Cookson, Tom Hughes


Trevor Nunn’s latest film Red Joan is a mishmash of history and fiction. Inspired by the true story of British KGB agent Melita Norwood but mostly fictionalized, the story follows Joan Stanley, a chemist whose smarts land her a spot on the scientific team developing the technology for a nuclear bomb. On that journey she meets Sonya (Tereza Srbova) whose brother Leo (Tom Hughes) is an outspoken Communist activist. With Sonya’s alluring worldly charm and Leo’s handsome bravado, Joan gets caught up in their world. She meets scientist Max (Stephen Campbell Moore), head of the aforementioned scientific team. Joan is torn between her steamy yet dangerous romance with Leo and her blossoming feelings for the still married Max. She also faces a great dilemma. With England completely enveloped in WWII, Joan decides that only an even playing field between England and Russia can set things right. The movie darts back and forth from 1938 to the story’s present day, circa 2000 when Joan (Judi Dench) is being interrogated for her “crimes” and her lawyer son (Ben Miles) must come to terms with his mother’s legacy and the secrets she’s been harboring all these years.

Most critics agree that Red Joan lacks from having too little Judi Dench in it. I for the most part agree. However, I don’t see how this would have worked because, for the purposes of the movie, viewers needed the full backstory of Joan circa late 1930s and early 1940s for us to fully grasp what’s happening to her in 2000.

Red Joan felt like a 1990s period piece and that made me nostalgic for that decade’s historical offerings. A feminist message is inserted, almost haphazardly, to make it more up-to-date. But overall the movie felt old-fashioned in a bad way. The story dragged on and the film felt overly long.

With that said, there is a lot to enjoy in Red Joan for those who love a good period piece with a strong female lead. Sophie Cookson and Judi Dench deliver superb performances. Cookson’s Joan is bright-eyed and cautious. Judi’s Joan is world weary. For anyone who relishes period detail, this film has a lot to offer especially with the elegant 1940s era apparel.

Red Joan is a throwback to a golden era of period pieces but it lacks some modern flair needed for contemporary viewers.

I attended a press and industry screening of Red Joan at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.



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