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Belfast’s Boys Tale is Kenneth Branagh’s Roma

JASON SOLOMONS wraps up the best of the London Film Festival.

Jamie Dornan as Pa, Ciarán Hinds as Pop, Jude Hill as Buddy, and Judi Dench as Granny in Belfast Photo: Rob Youngson / Focus Features

London may have been the host but Belfast was the city on everyone’s lips after the 65th edition of the BFI’s showcase festival.

Belfast is the new film from Kenneth Branagh, a burnished, black and white memoir of his own childhood and set in the summer of 1969 as the Troubles simmer over into violence. The film is beautiful to look at and full of impressive directorial flourishes and set-piece scenes – you might even call it Branagh’s Roma, so similar is it in tone and execution to Alfonso Cuaron’s Mexican masterpiece. Obviously, the accents are rather different.

With its gala London screening, Belfast, which won the auspicious Audience Award at the Toronto International Film Festival last month, strengthened its position as a firm Oscar and BAFTA favourite and it emerged from the scrum of the festival as the one to beat.

The story’s about little Buddy, a cute and garrulous kid whom everyone in the neighbourhood knows. It’s about his Da, played by Jamie Dornan, who comes and goes at the weekends because he’s got a job working in England; it’s about Ma (a gorgeous performance by Caitriona Balfe on whom I’d put my Best Actress money) and her struggle to keep it all together; it’s about school and going to the theatre and the movies, and about the growing unrest that brings the army on to the barricaded streets.

Much of the drama is illustrated by the greatest hits of Van Morrison, the music matching the mood of sentimental nostalgia, with just enough edge. Belfast moved its release date to the end of February, slap bang in the middle of the BAFTA and Oscar frenzy, so it clearly reckons its own chances of maximising the increased hype and glory awards recognition can bring it.

Quite the loveliest surprise of the festival, however, was a British comedy called The Phantom of the Open, starring Mark Rylance who tees up a masterful comic performance as Maurice Flitcroft, the real-life crane operator from Barrow in Furness who, in 1976, and having never before played a round of golf, entered the Open championship and carded the worst score in major history.

Scripted by Paddington writer Simon Farnaby and based on the book by sportswriter Scott Murray, the film has oodles of charm and keeps pulling exactly the right club out of the bag. Just when you think it will slip into whimsy or cliche, director Craig Roberts finds ways to keep the story moving and the character of Maurice growing, with the excellent Rylance ably supported by Sally Hawkins as his wife. It’ll give hope and validation to terrible golfers everywhere.

The film that won the festival’s Official Competition was Panah Panahi’s Iranian road movie Hit The Road, featuring the most wonderful child performance we’ve seen in years. Possibly because Iran doesn’t have stage schools for little brats, I don’t know, but the sheer charisma and cheeky energy of Rayan Sarlak lit up the screen. It’s a family road trip movie – the Iranians do specialise in car films – with moments of tenderness and real sadness, imbued with existential dread and threat that’s never quite explained. The Dad sits in the back of the car, his broken leg up on the seat rest while the Mum sits in the front, trying to hold her emotions in check – the oldest son is driving, quiet and impassive, and, we learn, he’s about to leave the country, being smuggled out for reasons never really explained.

What a delightful and fine film, a real Oscar contender, if Iran submits it – another excellent film from Asghar Farhardi, A Hero, was also playing at the LFF, but it doesn’t have a little kid popping out of a sun roof and dancing to 70s Tehran disco.

Stephen Graham delivered a belter of a performance in a film called Boiling Point, about a super-stressed chef on a busy night in his new Shoreditch restaurant. It’s all shot in one remarkable take, the camera snaking in and out of the kitchen like that famous shot from GoodFellas but keeping the pace and intensity up for 90 minutes. The poor guy has to contend with a visit from a powerful food critic and an old mate to whom he owes 200 grand, as well as moody customers and some pissed up bloggers. Fair to say, there’s a lot of heat in the kitchen and he can’t stand it.

This was a good LFF, firmly establishing itself on the Southbank and using the new partner venue of the Royal Festival Hall for the big gala films, a move that worked a treat and gave the festival a focal point and energy along the waterfront that I hope will continue. It seemed busy and buzzy and, what with James Bond packing audiences into almost every other cinema in town, it felt like the movies were back, in London at least, and that people were at last getting out of their sofas and away from the streaming TVs.

How the industry and the filmmakers build on this remains very much to be seen – cinema’s revival is no sure thing and, despite the quality of films on show at the LFF, many of them still need a lot of support if they’re to usher film into a new era and entice a new generation of moviegoers. As Belfast shows, nostalgia can be dangerous if you wallow in it too long.

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