On a Screen Near You: Julia and Belfast

We saw two movies last weekend, and if your area is like ours, there are no covid concerns. There couldn’t have been more than 10 other people in the theater for either showing.  Good for infection control, bad for the continued viability of our nonprofit movie house, the Garden Theater.

Belfast

We were really looking forward to this autobiographical film about the Northern Irish childhood of writer and director, super-star Kenneth Branagh (trailer), and we were not disappointed.

Branagh’s  parents were Protestants, but no Belfast resident of either religions could escape the tribal hatred of the late 1970s that ripped neighborhoods asunder.

Nine-year-old Buddy (played convincingly by Jude hill) had a dad (Jamie Dornan) working in England, who comes home occasional weekends to face his family’s deteriorating security situation. His absence leaves Buddy’s mother—in an unforgettable star turn by Caltriona Balfe—to cope as best she can. She has lived in Belfast all her life. She (and her kids) know every street, every person. Can anything persuade her to leave?

Beautifully directed by Branagh, it shows how hard in the moment are decisions that seem obvious in hindsight. Predictably wonderful portrayals of Buddy’s grandparents by Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds. Music by pre-off-the-deep-end Van Morrison, et al.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 87%; audiences 92%.

Julia

This documentary about foodie icon Julia Child is well worth seeing for anyone who has experienced (or benefited from—and that’s every one of us ) her tornado-like arrival on the American culinary scene (trailer), directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West.

Born in Pasadena to conventional, conservative parents, Julia McWilliams got her first taste of other possibilities when in World War II, she joined the Office of Strategic Services (forerunner of the CIA), which took her to Ceylon and China and, more important, introduced her to interesting, unconventional food and friends, including her eventual husband, diplomat Paul Child.

When Paul was stationed in Paris after the war, she fell in love with French cuisine and decided to attend the mostly male Cordon Bleu, the premier French cooking school. As a woman, she wasn’t welcome, but she persisted. Eventually, she teamed up with two Frenchwomen and produced Mastering the Art of French Cooking (two volumes of which are on my kitchen bookshelf today). This led to an interview on the then-barely-watched Boston Public television station, WGBH. The result is history. Episodes of The French Chef still appear on public television 50 years later, and generation of American cooks abandoned jello salads and Spam in favor of, well, real food. Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 98%; audiences 92%.

Leapin Leprechauns!

When it comes to a painful history, Irish authors know whereof they speak, and they know how to tell a story laced with humor. Fiction is one way to process lingering cultural traumas.

While I’ve read quite a few books by Irish authors in paper, they are wonderful books to listen to, as the narrators’ accents are transporting.

Crime Fiction

Next up for me is A Galway Epiphany by the award-winning Ken Bruen, called “the Godfather of the modern Irish crime novel,” being released April 1. It features his character Jack Taylor, an ex-cop turned private eye who becomes the center of his own mystery, when he is hit by a truck and left comatose but unscratched (narrated by Gerry O’Brien).

In the Cold, Cold Ground – Adrian McKinty’s first book featuring police detective Sean Duffy–a rare Catholic in the Royal Ulster Constabulary. In the bleak Belfast spring of 1981, hunger strikers in HM Prison Maze are dying. Paramilitaries are setting off bombs, gunfire rakes the streets, and Duffy is investigating a possible serial killer who targets homosexuals. The violent backdrop is tangible, especially with the forceful narration of the award-winning Gerard Doyle.

Stuart Neville wrote a series of excellent novels also set in Belfast, including the one I listened to, The Ghosts of Belfast. Fellow author John Connolly called it “not only one of the finest thriller debuts of the last ten years, but also one of the best Irish novels, in any genre, of recent times.”  Also narrated by Gerard Doyle.

In an interview, Doyle says that when he was a child, his parents would often take him with them to the pub. “I’d sit on the bench late into the evening listening to the stories and the lies. And the music! I even sang sometimes. They’d put me up on a table. One of my best was Ronnie Donegan’s ‘My Old Man’s a Dustbin.'”

Other Fiction

The Gathering by Booker prize-winner Anne Enright “has more layers to it—of grief, love, lightness, tragedy, absurdity, and trauma—than an onion, and may cause as much weeping,” said the editors of The American Scholar. I felt privileged to hear her reading a few years ago under the auspices of Princeton’s Fund for Irish Studies.

Glenn Patterson is another writer who gave a memorable reading in Princeton, and his The International is the story of a single night in the bar of the International Hotel, while upstairs a consequential meeting forming the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association takes place. It’s not about militants at all but about state-of-mind.

You may think there’s not much new literary territory to explore in male-female sexual relations, yet award-winning author Eimear McBride’s The Lesser Bohemians finds it and mines it. Innovative, immersive, dazzling.

****Gun Street Girl

Ireland, street scene, Belfast

Belfast street (photo: Recuerdos de Pandora, Creative Commons license)

By Adrian McKinty, narrated by Gerard Doyle Gun Street Girl takes place in Belfast, in the mid-1980s, and The Troubles provide a fine backdrop of tension and mayhem. It’s the fourth (yes!) of a planned trilogy, because McKinty—and his readers—couldn’t quite let Detective Sean Duffy go.

The complex plot grows out of actual events of the era, including missile thefts from aerospace company Short Brothers (a convoluted affair in real life) and the hostile environment created by the Thatcher-FitzGerald Anglo-Irish agreement. In the novel, Duffy is out of step as usual with his confreres in law enforcement, especially for being the rare Catholic in the Royal Ulster Constabulary. When a murder investigation takes Duffy and a new recruit to Oxford, England, they encounter a more generalized anti-Irish prejudice. The British coppers apparently believe the Irishmen will be satisfied to sit in their cozy b&b in Oxford (unless my ears mistook, referred to as “Morse-land,” in a nice homage) and drink whiskey. They are, of course, mistaken.

What has taken them to Oxford is the unraveling of a case that at first appears open-and-shut. A couple is found murdered, and it looks as if their son shot them then committed suicide. Under Duffy’s supervision, Detective Sergeant McCrabban is technically in charge of this investigation and is ready to close the books on it, but something’s not quite right. For one thing, no one really wants Duffy and McCrabban poking around in it.

Meanwhile, Duffy’s future with the R.U.C. faces an almost-certain dead-end, and MI5 agent Kate tries to recruit him for her agency. All things considered, a change of employer is more than a wee bit tempting. She’s the Gun Street girl, and, as Tom Waits would have it, Duffy will “never kiss a Gun Street girl again.”

Doyle has won numerous Earphones Awards from AudioFile, and has a solid history narrating mysteries and thrillers. In this book, he must present various Irish and English accents and does so beautifully. I could listen to the book again just to hear him read it. Detective Duffy’s voice is crucial, since the story is told in first-person narration, and Doyle captures him—and McKinty’s dry, self-deprecating humor—beautifully.

A longer version of this review is available on the Crime Fiction Lover website.