Welcome to movie-awards season, as two films arriving this week, “Belfast” and “Passing,” look back to the past through the lustrous filter of glorious black and white – the former seeing Ireland’s tumult in the 1960s via the eyes of a child, the latter America’s racial history in Harlem during the 1920s.
Written, produced and directed by Kenneth Branagh, “Belfast” isn’t exactly autobiographical but chronicles a story and time that the actor and filmmaker knows well, as unrest involving hostility by Protestants toward Catholics roiled the boy’s close-knit community. The resulting tumult has caused a cash-strapped family to begin contemplating leaving, unsettling nine-year-old Buddy (newcomer Jude Hill), who wants to stay in a town where everybody knows his name.
The movie begins in color before fading to black and white as Branagh launches the audience back to Belfast in 1969, where Buddy’s parents (“50 Shades of Grey’s” Jamie Dornan and “Outlander’s” Caitriona Balfe) fight and debate and fret about the future.
“We’re living in a civil war,” dad says, finding his wife more resistant to leaving behind all that she’s known.
Beautifully shot, and sentimental without being saccharine, the film presents Buddy as a kid significantly influenced by American movies and TV, watching things like “Star Trek,” “High Noon” and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” from which he derives his sense of heroism and justice. (He’s also shown reading a Thor comic book, a sly reference to an earlier Branagh directorial effort.)
The cast is sensational, including a scene-stealing Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench as Buddy’s caring grandparents, with the boy spending a lot of time especially with grandpa as his parents struggle to get by.
In the press notes Branagh compares the film to director Pedro Almodóvar’s “Pain and Glory” as a fictionalized work based on his early life, which certainly falls under the “Write what you know” category. Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma,” also shot in black and white, reflects another recent example of a movie infused with such personal detail.
Yet such films can also become a self-indulgent trap, a potential misstep that Branagh deftly avoids in a story that conveys his fondness for this period and these people (augmented by a song score from Van Morrison) as well as its ugliness.
Branagh has directed all kinds of movies over the past 30 years, from his frequent adaptations of Shakespeare to “Cinderella” and the aforementioned “Thor.” It’s perhaps appropriate, though, that his most personal film would also turn out to be his crowning achievement.
“Passing” also comes from an actor, Rebecca Hall, moving behind the camera – here for the first time as both writer and director – adapting a 1929 book that delivers a powerful showcase for Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga (“Loving”).
Thompson’s Irene, a doctor’s wife, has actually flirted with “passing” in order to spend time in White society, but she’s jolted when she reconnects with childhood friend Clare (Negga), who has taken the act to the extreme, living as a White woman and marrying a wealthy White man (Alexander Skarsgard).
Yet Clare’s discontent and sense of what she’s sacrificed becomes a growing issue as she begins to spend more time with Irene, at what appears to be significant peril should her deception be exposed.
In this case, shooting in black and white makes a statement that reinforces the film’s central tension, which is a world as seen in Black and White, with no shades in between. While the central performances, especially Negga, are terrific, the one drawback would be that the story moves somewhat slowly in getting back to Clare’s tale, which somewhat overshadows that of Irene – who is married to a doctor (André Holland) and primarily serves as an uncomfortable observer of this dangerous balancing act.
Hall captures how the two women chafe against the system and its limitations in different ways, and shoots the film with a haunting, almost hypnotic quality. That atmosphere, in a sense, is stronger than the story, but it’s more than enough to make “Passing” a movie that shouldn’t be passed by.
“Belfast” premieres Nov. 12 in US theaters, and “Passing” premieres Nov. 10 on Netflix. Both are rated PG-13.