Scene at Chi Film Fest: ‘Belfast,’ ‘Cow’

No introduction today — here’s what I saw since we last spoke.

“Belfast”

One of this year’s Gala Presentations is “Belfast,” the new film written and directed by Kenneth Branagh. The 60-year-old actor turned filmmaker has had a long and accomplished career: he’s made several Shakespeare adaptations, most notably “Henry V” and “Hamlet”; he’s starred as Hercule Poirot in multiple Agatha Christie mysteries; he’s directed countless blockbusters including “Cinderella” and “Thor”; and most recently, he collaborated with Christopher Nolan on films like “Dunkirk” and “Tenet.” For all this and more, Branagh accepted a Lifetime Achievement Award at last night’s premiere.

“Belfast” is a semi-autobiographical film inspired by Branagh’s experiences as a child during The Troubles in Northern Ireland. At the Toronto International Film Festival, “Belfast” won the prestigious People’s Choice Award, which has launched it squarely into the Oscar race. In fact, the last time the winner of the People’s Choice Award wasn’t at least nominated for Best Picture was a decade ago — expect to hear a lot more from “Belfast” in the future.

At a Q&A after the film, Branagh reflected on how his experiences in quarantine encouraged him to write.

“Staring into the silence,” Branagh said, “I think that led me to this.” 

Branagh also described the first screening of the film, to his siblings, after their parents passed away.

“My brother actually said to my sister, ‘What do you think mum and dad would have thought about this?’” Branagh said. “And she said, ‘Well, they’d have approved of the casting.’”

This is a reference to the little boy’s parents in the film, played by Jamie Dornan (yes, from “Fifty Shades of Grey”) and Caitrona Balfe. But neither actor should be reduced to their looks; both deliver strong and subtle performances. So do Ciarán Hinds and the ineffable Judi Dench as the little boy’s grandparents.

Branagh also commented on the film’s cinematography and how his lifelong love of cinema and theatre factored into the story. These two themes collide when Branagh includes footage from a movie or a play in “Belfast” — in a film that is (literally) black and white otherwise, the screen suddenly explodes with color. He also spoke about singer-songwriter Van Morrison’s contributions to the film’s soundtrack, like a soulful saxophone theme.

The five-time Oscar nominee was so gracious at the screening, it actually pains me to say that other than the aforementioned elements, I didn’t enjoy “Belfast” at all. The film is barely more than 90 minutes but it’s frequently dull, and Jude Hill (the child playing “Buddy,” a fictionalized Branagh) is terribly over-directed, as if he was instructed to act as cute as possible in literally every take.

The question at the heart of the story is simple: What does it mean to be nostalgic for The Troubles? How do you rationalize the wonder of childhood with the horrors of reality? It’s a fascinating contradiction that Branagh barely pokes at. Instead, he wildly seesaws between the grossly saccharine cheesiness of “the good times” and the ultra-realistic trauma of “the bad times.” Were there any, like, normal times? This lack of nuance hollows the film and creates an artificial feeling that’s hard to shake off. Whatever. This will probably win Best Picture. 5/10

“Cow”

Presented in both the Documentary and Women in Cinema programs (and available both theatrically and virtually) is “Cow,” Andrea Arnold’s documentary debut. While the jump from narrative to nonfiction filmmaking might seem like a hard left for other directors, Arnold’s films have always existed just to the side of documentary. “Fish Tank” was a 21st century homecoming for the British social realism of the 1960s, while “American Honey” took Arnold to the States in an epic deconstruction of the American dream. 

“Cow” — not to be confused with Kelly Reichardt’s “First Cow” — is about just that. The film follows a cow, or really two, a mother and daughter. Shot over the course of four years in rural England, we watch not only a day in the life of a dairy cow, but a lifetime. In the opening scene, Luma (the mother) gives birth to her calf, and within minutes the two are separated — so soon, in fact, that Luma’s placenta is literally still hanging out of her.

The film is presented with no interviews, narration or non-diegetic sound of any kind. We hear only the mooing of cows, the shuffling of hooves and occasionally Billie Eilish or Kali Uchis over the loud speakers. Furthermore, the film is shot using handheld camerawork exclusively at a bovine eye-level; the faces of individual farmers are often obscured, reinforcing the modern mechanization of the industry and the systemic problems that result. This minimalist approach proves quietly devastating — in the absence of melodrama or “talking heads,” all we’re left with are the images, and they speak for themselves. 

My only qualm is that I’m not convinced the film justifies its own existence. That’s a pretty big qualm, so allow me to explain. At multiple points throughout the movie, Arnold’s camera gets so close to the cows that they literally collide. After the second or third crash, I realized that to Luma, the documentary crew was no different from the farmers that manhandled her and her calf. The film is, in its own way, a form of exploitation. A part of me thinks Arnold is actually aware of this — she easily could have edited out the literal bumps along the way — but even if she is, it’s an idea the film never fully tackles. Regardless, Arnold makes such an attempt at empathy here that I’m willing to absolve her. 6/10

Check back tomorrow for our last crop of reviews from the fest, including “Spencer” starring Kristen Stewart as Princess Diana and “Mayor Pete” about a certain South Bend local.

I’ll see you at the movies!

This article was originally published on October 22, 2021 in The Observer, the daily newspaper of the University of Notre Dame. You can read it here.

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