JWR Articles: Film/DVD - Mass | Passing | Belfast (Directors: Fran Kranz, Rebecca Hall, Kenneth Branagh) - January 13, 2022

Mass | Passing | Belfast

4.5 4.5

Three current features well worth a look

2021, 111 minutes
Fran Kranz
Four and one half stars

“I raised a murderer”

Here’s a film that is difficult but important to watch, especially as mass shootings in schools become the norm rather than the exception—and have for decades (34 incidents so far in 2021, 68 killed or wounded).

In a small Episcopal Church in Iowa, a social worker (Michelle Carter) has brought together two couples in a “peaceful [neutral] place” to privately discuss the aftermath of a fictional outrage: 11 dead—10 students and the gunman.

Couple one (Gail—Martha Plimpton, Jay—Jason Issacs) have forever lost their son Evan. Couple 2 (Linda—Ann Dowd, Richard—Reed Birney) are the parents of Hayden, the shooter.

What on earth would they have to talk about?

Anyone who has lost a child can empathize most certainly with the grieving parents of the victim; just as dead, how might it be possible to feel the pain of the mother and father who raised the perpetrator?

Kranz explores all matter of consequential emotions: rage, anger, frustration, regret, possible forgiveness, as the bereaved quartet try to remain civil, listening rather than interrogating. Naturally, with so many raw, bitter, incomprehensible memories, the atmosphere is frequently overwhelmed with truths that want to be said, and a few that take a long time to come to the surface.

It falls to a potted floral gift and the church choir’s day-before-service rehearsal (they certainly need it, adding a subtle bit of verisimilitude) to resolve the—at times—excruciating tension and set the stage for a modicum of healing.

While never explicitly named, the perils of living life “online” (largely through video games and social media), bullying and the resultant mental health issues, are lurking in the weeds. That, coupled with laissez-faire gun control, can only make thoughtful viewers wonder “How on earth will we ever end the carnage?”

Neither Democrats nor Republicans have the answers. More’s the pity for those on both sides of the “trigger” and the pathetic certainty that more lives will be lost and families destroyed forever.

This film ought to be required viewing for any elected official from school trustees to the president. Will they dare to look? JWR

2021, 98 minutes
Rebecca Hall
Four stars

Skinned by race

Based on the 1929 novel by Neila Larsen, Hall’s directorial début shows much promise and demands an encore.

The subject matter, literally on the surface, is skin tone: Blacks who can pass for white. In New York City in the 1920s, what’s a girl to do? Declare her heritage to one and all, or shamelessly seek the privileges and perks not afford to coloured folk.

The two principals turn in first-rate performances. Irene lives a life of comfort, having married a Black doctor (André Holland is appropriately understated in his scenes) who is successful and devoted to his wife and sons. Who could ask for anything more? Tessa Thompson ably makes the transition from all is bliss to “Is my husband cheating?” with style and verve.

Irene’s storybook life takes a gradual turn for the worse with her unexpected reunion with Clare, a high school chum whose skin tone is light/white enough for anyone to assume she is Caucasian. Anyone except Irene, who knows the truth. Her former pal is also doing well, having married well: John (Alexander Skarsgård) covets his lily-white, trophy wife but would be mortified to discover he’s been sleeping with one of “those people”.

As the relationships renew and develop between these two women and their husbands (at times “refereed” by friend Hugh—Bill Camp—who doesn’t suffer fools gladly), tensions begin to rise with the twin possibilities of infidelity and racial exposure threatening to blow apart both couples and all they thought they had.

Appropriately filmed in black and white (deftly captured by cinematographer Eduard Grou) and reinforced with an inventive original score from Devonté Hynes (cross-reference below), Larsen’s gritty, honest tale of reverse racism strikes many curious chords in our era of Black Lives Matter (even as, pathetically, some still don’t). JWR

2021, 97 minutes
Kenneth Branagh
Four stars

“A fork in the road”

There have been many, many films about “The Troubles” (notably The Crying Game and Hungercross-reference below), but on director-writer Branagh’s watch, this somewhat biographical narrative rings with personal truth and understanding.

The point of view is mostly Buddy’s—a nine-year-old protestant who, like so many children growing up in a conflict stretching almost three decades (late ‘60s to 1998) is forced to skip parts of their childhood and learn/participate in the culture of “my religion is better than yours.”

Newcomer Jude Hill readily devours the pivotal role, as both he and his character display smarts and maturity beyond their years. Oscar may well be tempted.

The ensemble cast is also first rate, including Buddy’s kin: Judi Dench, Caitríona Balfe, Jamie Dorman, Ciarán Hinds, and Colin Morgan as bad boy Billy Clanton. Branagh, through his script and blocking, achieves a near-seamless flow as the drama moves to a conclusion that forever upsets previously stable lives only because too many of us can’t get along.

Van Morrison’s original score is both sympathetic and supportive of Branagh’s vision.

The production also serves as a cautionary tale for our present day. In 1969, the local vicar reminds his flock that “We are a fork in the road.” Substitute Republican for Protestant and Democrat for Catholic and it’s more and more apparent that the growing foment in the “Land of the Free” may have similar, repugnant outcomes. JWR

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