What to read, watch and listen to this weekend

Still black and white image from the movie Belfast directed by Kenneth Branagh of a young boy running towards the camera in the middle of a cobbled street holding a wooden sword in one hand and a metal dustbin lid in the other. He is laughing and is wearing shorts and a polo top

A rundown of the books, films, music and more by Tortoise Media, the slow news agency

By Matt d'Ancona

Welcome to the latest Creative Sensemaker from Tortoise Media.

It is 1969: the camera tilts up and pans across to reveal a cheerfully busy Belfast neighbourhood: terraced homes, children playing, mothers calling them in to tea. Shot in black and white, this animated tableau recalls the lyrics of ‘Penny Lane’.
 
In the middle of the mock battle, a small blond boy brandishes a bin lid to fend off the charge mounted by his friends. Then, without the slightest warning, the conflict becomes all too real, as rioters suddenly invade the street, hurling Molotov cocktails, their snarled features warning of worse to come. The boy’s mother rushes out to retrieve her son, grabbing the bin lid, which is transformed in an instant from a makeshift toy into a real-life shield to protect him from projectiles and flames.
 
Thus does the opening scene of Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast (general release, 21 January) – and the specific moment when a child’s toy becomes a barrier against bloodshed – encapsulate the movie’s greatest audacity and its principal theme: the director’s juxtaposition of sectarian tensions that often spill over into outright violence with a semi-autobiographical account of a perfectly normal family life and the idyll of boyhood innocence.
 
What makes Belfast so powerful and compelling is that much of its 98 minutes is devoted to the unremarkable day-to-day routine of nine-year-old Buddy (superbly played by Jude Hill), the bickering of his parents over work and tax bills (Jamie Dornan and Caitriona Balfe), and the wry interventions of his grandfather (Ciarán Hinds) and grandmother (Judi Dench). 
 
In almost every scene – beautifully filmed by Haris Zambarloukos – we are reminded: these are ordinary people, not fledgling warriors straining at the leash to wage civil war. They wish with every fibre of their being that the rough beast of history was not knocking so insistently at their door.
 
Drawing deeply on his own childhood – Branagh’s family moved to England in May, 1970, as he describes in his memoir Beginning – the film relishes Buddy’s rich imaginative life and whimsy. As a regular nine-year-old, he is more absorbed by his Thor comic than by the gathering storm on the streets of his home city. Why agonise about sectarian division when you have a crush on the clever Catholic girl at school? 
 
It is all the more horrific, then, when the local Loyalist thug delivers a jaw-crunching blow to a neighbour who refuses to comply with the new regime of ‘cash or commitment’. Standing between such barbarism and the warmth of family life is Dornan’s character – who, making the most of his chemistry with Balfe, plays one half of a couple of small means but defiant glamour; deeply in love in spite of the challenges they face.
 
With a growing sense of dread, then, we know that the oscillation between safe intimacy and metastasising violence will not last forever. Buddy’s family cannot postpone the moment of decision – to stay in Belfast or seek a different life elsewhere? – indefinitely.
 
Belfast is a film about the moments when violence, extortion and religious hatred intervene to force agonising choices and compel those who love their rootedness reluctantly to contemplate escape. 
 
Branagh’s dedication is unambiguous: ‘For the ones who stayed. For the ones who left. And for all the ones who were lost.’ His film is set in the Troubles, but not defined by them, and, for this spirit of nuance alone, it deserves the highest accolades.
 
Here are this week’s recommendations:

Still image from the TV series, 'Servant' featuring Rupert Grint as Julian Pierce wearing a blue suit and tie with a checkered shirt, looking very concerned into a cot with a mobile above it, and Toby Kebbell as Sean Turner in the background looking at Rupert Grint with a concerned expression on his face also

Watch


Servant – season three (Apple TV+, 21 January)
Aside from a few gems, Apple TV+ has been surprisingly underwhelming since its UK launch in November 2019. The greatest exception, for me at any rate, has been the absorbing psychological thriller, Servant. The premise is a satisfying brew of weird and conventional: Sean (Toby Kebbell) and Dorothy (Lauren Ambrose) employ a nanny, Leanne (Nell Tiger Free), to look after their baby, Jericho; except that Jericho appears to have died aged 13 weeks, and been replaced temporarily by a doll as part of Dorothy’s therapeutic recovery from full-blown breakdown. Leanne, we learned in the first two seasons, is connected to a very sinister cult. And Dorothy’s brother, Julian (Rupert Grint, no longer recognisable as Ron Weasley), is a decadent, drug-abusing presence in the house, clearly guarding many secrets. A series that truly creeps up on you.

Read


East Side Voices: Essays Celebrating East And Southeast Asian Identity In Britain edited by Helena Lee In February 2020, Helena Lee, Acting Deputy Editor of Harper’s Bazaar, founded the East Side Voices cultural salon. Her objective was to provide a platform for the ‘visible but unseen’ East and Southeast Asian diaspora living in Britain. ‘Our stories weren’t seen as valid enough to be told or reported on,’ she writes, ‘and so we’ve long been excluded from the cultural canon. I certainly didn’t want my children growing up in a world that did not see, acknowledge, or validate them.’ This excellent collection of essays and poems is a powerful response to that bias – unconscious or otherwise – its 18 contributions full of reflection, experience and nuanced discussion of identity and bigotry. With contributions from the novelist Sharlene Teo, actor Katie Leung, and author Rowan Hisayo Buchanan, this is an important addition to the growing literature of contemporary identity and cultural politics.

Book cover for East Side Voices by Helena Lee. The book has a dark blue background and there are lots of colourful squiggly lines from top to bottom. Over the lines along the right hand side is white bold text that reads: 'East Side Voices, essays celebrating east and southeast Asian identity in Britain, edited by Helena Lee'
Album cover for Bonobo's new album called Fragments which is a point of view close up of the sea as though someone is at eye level with the water and there are small waves around them. The colours at the top start as pink and orange hues from the sunset, then as the light hits the water it almost looks like fire, then as we go even further down the water turns to a dark blue

Listen


Fragments by Bonobo
The Brighton-born producer Si Green – aka Bonobo – has long suffered from the vaguely patronising tendency of music critics to categorise trip hop artists dismissively as ‘nu jazz’, ‘ambient electronica’ or (what they really mean) ‘wallpaper music’. His seventh studio album is a terrific response to this charge, with its changes of pace, voraciously eclectic influences, and creative intelligence. 

A particular highlight is the ready-to-go dancefloor gem ‘Sapien’; and if you want to hear what hope sounds like when channelled through Bluetooth and a good set of cans, try ‘Otomo’ – complete with assistance from London producer O’Flynn and (but of course) a Bulgarian choir.

That’s all for now. Enjoy the weekend and take care of yourselves.

Best wishes,


Matt d’Ancona
Editor and Partner
Tortoise Media
@MatthewdAncona

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