So over the holidays me and the fam had the opportunity to watch Kenneth Branagh’s new film Belfast, which he based on his own memories of growing up in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Branagh was born into a Protestant family that fled Belfast for England around 1969-70 or so, when Branagh was about 10 or 11 (if I remember correctly), following the eruption of what came to be known as “the Troubles,” the cycle of violence related to the longstanding dispute over Catholic civil rights in Northern Ireland. We streamed the film at our home with my Belfast-born and bred mother in attendance, who was visiting for Christmas.

My mother is Catholic and was raised in the predominantly Catholic area of west Belfast, just off the Falls Road, so it goes without saying that she had a different perspective than Branagh, who as a Protestant was raised in a Protestant majority area that had some Catholic residents who were therefore a distinct minority in their neighborhood. I should note, however, that my mother left Belfast for the U.S. in 1963 (at the tender age of 19), about six years before the Troubles, and Branagh’s story, commenced in August of 1969. But based on what mom’s told me of her experience growing up there in a Catholic family through the 1950s and early ’60s, it seems to me that Branagh’s portrayal of Northern Ireland’s main political dispute as suddenly erupting into violence, seemingly out of nowhere, lacks a great deal of context.

Now keep in mind that by no means do I claim to be some kind of expert on Northern Ireland’s history and politics just because that’s where my mom is from and I’ve visited family there on a few occasions over the years. (I was last there as a teenager and that, my friends, was a very, very long time ago.) But just based on what little knowledge I’ve gleaned from my mother and relatives overseas, a couple of things struck me as a little odd.

“There is no our side and their side of our street, at least there didn’t used to be,” laments the father (ably played by a stolid Jamie Dornan) of the little boy through whose eyes we are told this family’s story. That observation seems a little strange. Mom has told stories of her and her sisters standing up and pelting their local cinema’s screen with food, various detritus, curses, and stiffly upright middle fingers whenever Queen Elizabeth II’s visage was displayed as the obligatory “God Save the Queen” came over the sound system, which always preceded the preview of coming attractions. That was well over a decade before the Troubles. One has to wonder where Mr. Branagh–the “Pa” in the movie is based on Branagh’s late father–had been during his 30-something years of existence.

Branagh’s family may have had no truck with the Catholics in their own neighborhood, but there was most certainly a very explicit sense of “us” and “them” that, by 1969, had pervaded Northern Ireland’s politics for decades, ever since Ireland’s six northeastern-most counties, with their Protestant majorities and Catholic minorities, were partitioned off as “Northern Ireland” in 1921 and kept under British rule, following Ireland’s war for independence and subsequent civil war. The rest of Ireland, meanwhile, with its Catholic majority, became a self-governing republic. Northern Ireland’s Catholics had protested that they had been effectively relegated to second class status almost from the very beginning. Prominent among their list of grievances was that they had been systematically excluded from certain jobs, particularly civil service jobs. That had profound implications for public and social services in Northern Ireland’s Catholic communities, and for their economic situation overall.

Surely, Pa Branagh was aware of all that, which renders his observation naive at best, or at the very least tone deaf.

That leads me to another claim that Pa makes during the course of the film that struck me as strange–that the source of the conflict was the religious differences between Protestants and Catholics. That seems to be more the kind of superficial assessment that you would expect from a casual outside observer who had absolutely zero knowledge of the conflict’s politics and history, rather than someone who had been born and raised in Northern Ireland and had lived there well into their 30s by 1969. The conflict was always political in nature, a brute struggle for raw power, with the fault lines naturally delineating the Protestants as British unionists and the Catholics as Irish republicans for historical reasons. To my understanding, theological differences between Protestantism and Catholicism as such never played much of a role at all.

But the above quibbles never prevented me from enjoying this film. The main dramatic thrust of Branagh’s story, after all, is a family’s struggle to choose between remaining in the only country they’ve ever known to be home even as it spirals downwards into an abyss of violence and chaos, or leaving for another, stranger, place in order to secure a more peaceful future for their young sons. It’s a touching story, one that many people all over the world, unfortunately, could certainly relate to. And though I think it’s usually too obvious to even state, I will remind the reader that one should never expect to glean any accurate history from the movies. For that, you need to do the much more difficult work of seeking out reliable sources and doing your own research.

And this movie has a great cast. As the child of a northern Irish mother, I can reliably attest that Caitriona Balfe is the very quintessence of northern Irish motherhood. Dame Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds as the grandparents are particularly moving, especially in their scenes with the story’s young protagonist, played by the undeniably charming Jude Hill. Your heart would have to be made of ice as thick as a glacier for it not to melt.

Though the film’s black and white cinematography has a kind of arthouse, Truffautesque feel about it, this movie is really just a straightforward tale about people who genuinely love and care for each other having to make tough choices when it seems that the whole world has gone stark raving mad. And for that, Belfast is a most welcome and refreshing diversion.

About ‘Last Night in Soho’…

So the wife and I decided to catch filmmaker Edgar Wright’s latest at the moving picture show last night, Last Night in Soho. I had never been as big of a fan of his work as some people–he seems to have a fairly devout base of fanboys–but I always thought that he at least knows how to serve up a decent couple of hours or so of entertainment. Actual storytelling was never quite Wright’s greatest strength but at least his movies were usually funny. Any plot deficiencies that Shaun of the Dead or Hot Fuzz may have had were more than compensated by the humor that permeated those movies, as schoolboyish as it may be. I never got the impression from Wright that he was ever necessarily out to make grand cinematic masterpieces. His goal always seemed to be to simply provide some decent distraction for the moviegoer’s dollar. And that’s perfectly fine. Ain’t nothin’ wrong with that at all.

But now he’s given us Last Night in Soho. It seems that Edgar wants to take himself a little more seriously these days, which is also fine, but the result is a bright and pretty neon dish that unfortunately serves up some very confused storytelling, with very little of the laughter that is usually to be had in his films. It’s so confusing, and so offensive to the audience’s intelligence, as to be downright embarrassing.

I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised that Wright has become anxious to change things up a bit and get a little more artsy. “Evolve or die,” as the late John Lennon once said during the recording of Sgt. Pepper. Wright’s 2017 movie Baby Driver attempted to extend his artistic reach beyond his usual grasp, but as far as plot and story goes, that action-heist-car chase crime thriller is far more satisfying than Soho. Of course, Wright reportedly spent two decades developing Driver, having started working on the script as an adolescent. Soho feels like it was slapped together over a long weekend of heavy drinking and bong hits some time during the height of the #MeToo controversy. This is all the more perplexing considering that the film was co-written with a woman screenwriter, Krysty Wilson-Cairns, who also co-wrote the script of Sam Mendes’ perfectly respectable (if not entirely memorable) World War I drama, 1917, for which she shared an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay with Mendes. Soho is definitely attempting to make some kind of a statement about women and what they have had to deal with in the professional world in both the past and in the present, but whatever it is that it’s trying to say is much too garbled to make out. Surely Wilson-Cairns must have a more distinct take.

The film looks good, to be sure. Edgar Wright never fails to deliver pretty pictures and some interesting camera work, and he obviously finds mid-1960s London to be quite the inspiration. But–and this should be more than obvious to a filmmaker of Wright’s caliber–if you’re going to pull a bait-and-switch on your audience, the switch had better turn out be a lot more satisfying than what they thought they were getting when they took the bait. At the very least, you shouldn’t totally undermine in the final act a major part of the premise that you had set up in the first.

It was entirely fitting that Wright should cast veteran actors Terrence Stamp and Diana Rigg in a film that in part harkens back to the swinging ’60s. But Stamp turns out to be a mostly incidental character and so he’s unjustly wasted in this movie. And it’s very sad that this was Rigg’s final curtain. Young lead actress Thomasin McKenzie is fine in the lead role of Eloise considering that she’s saddled with a character who’s almost an entirely reactive protagonist, an apparently unintended irony considering the film’s semi-feminist pretensions. (McKenzie was far better in the underrated and underappreciated JoJo Rabbit.) Matt Smith also appears to be trying his best with the script’s shallow character development.

I appear to be a part of a small minority, however. Soho has an audience rating of 92% on Rotten Tomatoes and though the critics’ rating is a more tepid 74%, that strikes me as surprisingly high in light of just how bad this film is. As horror, while I suppose it does have its moments of creepiness, it’s not really that scary. There aren’t any moments that shock and jolt you out of your seat. This flick also fails as suspense. Only a total moron would fail to see the film’s supposed “twist” being telegraphed well in advance of its “big reveal” (which, as I’ve alluded to above, completely contradicts a major element of the film’s established premise, leaving the viewer completely befuddled). Either people are getting dumber, or perhaps I’m becoming more and more crotchety as I age. Or maybe it’s both.

Last Night in Soho does seem to be the kind of neon-shiny crap that people typically flock to these days.