of the big winners at this year's Academy Awards are stories of
families in crisis. Sian Heder's CODA, released by Apple
TV+, puts a socially relevant twist on the old story of a young woman
whose ambitions elicit her parents' disapproval. Kenneth
Branagh's semi-autographical film Belfast,available for rent on
Amazon Prime,tells an even older story—that of a family trying
to survive in a society torn by violence.
CODA is an acronym for
"Child of Deaf Adults," and the title sums up the basic conflict of
the story. Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones) is a high-school senior in
the fishing industry town of Gloucester, Mass. She is the only
hearing member of her family, which includes her fisherman father
Frank (Troy Kotsur), mother Jackie (Marlee Matlin), and older brother
Leo (Daniel Durant). Ruby helps Frank and Leo on the family's
fishing boat and has no plans beyond that after graduation.
Frank and Jackie are a couple of
old hippies, comfortable with their lives and each other, and Leo is
fully invested in the family business. But Ruby longs for
something beyond fishing, and those longings are encapsulated in Miles
(Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), the classmate on whom she has a crush.
When she discovers that Miles is trying out for the school choir, she
impulsively does the same.
Nervous about singing in front of Miles and the other choristers, Ruby runs
away from the first rehearsal. In time, however, choir director Bernardo
"Mr. V" Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez) discovers that Ruby has a glorious
voice. He starts coaching her privately and urges her to apply to his alma
mater, the Berklee College of Music in Boston.
The rest of CODA concerns the complications Ruby's new ambitions
create. They go beyond the inability of the rest of her family to hear
music. Frank and Leo, fed up with restrictions set by the local fishing
board, decide to start their own seafood distribution business. They, like
other fishermen, are also being hit hard by new Coast Guard regulations,
and their problems are compounded by their being unable to hear Coast
Guard warnings on the water. (A scene in which Frank and Leo's boat is
boarded by the Coast Guard, at a time when Ruby is off with Miles, is the
film's most harrowing.)
CODA, however, is an optimistic film as well as a heartwarming one, and
most if not all conflicts are resolved on the way to a happy ending. The
theme of a deaf family raises CODA above "Mama, I Want to Sing" cliches.
Like most deaf people, the Rossis do not see themselves as disabled, and
they resent the condescension of the hearing world. Leo is also angry that
the family is so dependent on Ruby as an interpreter. But love and
kindness win out over resentment.
The film has scenes of delicate poignancy, such as when Frank "hears"
Ruby sing by holding his hand to her throat. There are also scenes of ribald
humor, such as when Frank and Jackie, unable to hear Ruby and Miles
come in, are interrupted while having a little afternoon delight. In one
particularly striking scene, at one of Ruby's concerts, the sound suddenly
goes blank: the audience experiences the scene the way Frank, Jackie, and
The true glory of CODA is its superb ensemble cast, which was honored
this year by the Screen Actors Guild. Troy Kotsur, a veteran of the deaf
theater whose roles include Stanley Kowalski and Cyrano de Bergerac,
deserved his Best Supporting Actor Oscar, and his funny, inspiring
acceptance speech won him millions of new fans. But as fine as he was, I
didn't see him as the standout. Marlee Matlin—herself an Oscar winner for Children of a Lesser God—is just as excellent as Kotsur, especially in a
tender scene with Emilia Jones toward the end. Eugenio Derbez, a major
star in his native Mexico, is a delight as the perpetually exasperated Mr. V.
As for Jones, she more than justifies her central role in the story. Her
version of Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now" equals that of Judy Collins or
even Mitchell herself.
CODA won the Best Picture Oscar, and it is a very good film. But it
wouldn't have been the film I voted for if I were an Academy member. My
choice would have been Belfast, which won the Best Original Screenplay
Oscar for Kenneth Branagh. It is the masterpiece so far of his four-decade
film career, and one of the most powerful films of the past decade.
Belfast fills the screen with vibrancy and emotion from its beginning, when,
to the tune of Van Morrison's "Down to Joy," Branagh takes us on a brief,
colorful tour of the old port city. Then, the camera rises, the color
disappears, and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos presents us with the
black-and-white image of a working-class Belfast street, circa 1969.
It is a homey scene, with children playing, neighbors greeting each other,
mothers calling their children in to tea. Buddy (Jude Hill) is waving his
wooden sword and brandishing his garbage-can shield. Then, suddenly,
everything freezes. The end of the street erupts; a crowd of rioters
advances toward the innocent residents with bricks and Molotov cocktails.
In the melee, Buddy's Ma (Caitriona Balfe) pulls Buddy and his older
brother Will (Lewis McAskie) to safety.
The rioters were Protestants seeking to drive Catholics from the
neighborhood. As Protestants, Buddy and his family are nominally safe.
But Billy Clanton (Colin Morgan), leader of the Protestant thugs, demands
absolute loyalty to his cause and himself, or else. He especially demands
this of Buddy's Pa (Jamie Dornan), who works a construction job in
London during the week and comes home on weekends. Pa calls Clanton
"a jumped-up gangster," but it's increasingly apparent that such an attitude
could cause Pa to get hurt, or worse.
Ma and Pa have trouble enough without Clanton. Buddy and Will overhear
them arguing about money—Pa's fondness for playing the horses, as well as
a huge tax debt that hangs over the family. Meanwhile, Buddy is constantly
harried by his cousin Moira (Lara McDonnell) to join her start-up juvenile
gang, the main purpose of which is to raid sweet shops.
Buddy has consolations in his life: his doting grandparents Granny (Judi
Dench) and Pop (Ciaran Hinds), and Catherine (Olive Tennant), the girl in
his math class he has a crush on. But the spirit of Billy Clanton rules
Belfast, to the point that Pa and Ma must make a fateful decision.
Belfast is mostly a funny, buoyant film. Its ruling spirit is Buddy, who as
played by Jude Hill is one of the most enchanting screen children ever.
Buddy is the film's surrogate for Branagh himself, and it's a hoot to see him
playing at being a medieval warrior, remembering as we do that Henry V
was the role which made Branagh a movie star. Loquacious and quizzical,
Buddy talks out his various quandaries to the annoyance of his family. He
tries to live by Pa's admonishment: "Be good, and if you can't be good, be
careful." Soon, however, the entire family is caught up in situations where
it is impossible to be either good enough or careful enough. It is the terror
of these scenes, and the poignant power of their aftermath, that raise Belfast to the level of art.
Branagh combines the different elements of Belfast masterfully to make
the film an immersive experience. The voice and saxophone of Van
Morrison, heard throughout the film, are a strong motif, as is Buddy's
movie watching. A viewing of High Noon on the telly is a powerful
harbinger of Pa's confrontation with Clanton late in the film. (It can't be a
coincidence that Billy Clanton was also the name of one of Wyatt Earp's
antagonists at the O.K. Corral.)
Above all, Branagh gets extraordinary performances from his ensemble
cast, which for my money is even better than that of CODA. Judi Dench
and Ciaran Hinds are the first among equals; a scene between the two,
reminiscing about how they first met, is the most moving in the film.
Dench has worked extensively with Branagh over the decades, beginning
with a 1987 BBC production of Ibsen's Ghosts,and appeared with him most
recently playing Anne Hathaway to his William Shakespeare in All is True. Branagh gives Dench the final lines in Belfast,and she rewards him with an
unforgettably moving ending.
There have been many movies about the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and Belfast is one of the most distinguished. We have had many sad reminders
recently of how hatred and vainglory bring violent ends to innocent lives. Belfast reminds us that people endure in the face of tragedy, and that is a
message that never becomes dated.