It’s not surprising that director Kenneth Branagh’s autobiographical “Belfast,” nominated for seven Oscars and likely to win for Branagh’s screenplay, is such a crowd pleaser.
Branagh’s wistful look back at his boyhood is set in 1969 just as the Northern Ireland conflict erupted in his working-class neighborhood and pitted Protestants against Catholics. Told from 9-year-old Buddy’s (Jude Hill) point of view, the Troubles are another part of his young life, along with family quarrels, grade school crushes, TV shows such as “Star Trek,” and visits to the cinema alongside his beloved family.
The 1990s-set sitcom “Derry Girls” takes a similar tack by focusing on the comedic and romantic exploits of a group of friends at a Catholic girls’ secondary school in Derry in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. The British production, a huge hit in Northern Ireland and available to stream on Netflix in the United States, debuted in 2018 and has aired two seasons, with the third set for this year. It was filmed in Northern Ireland, with scenes shot on location in Derry and Belfast.
The show’s creator, Lisa McGee, drew on her own experiences growing up in Derry. The irreverent comedy centers on a scrappy band of working-class teenagers led by Erin Quinn (Saoirse-Monica Jackson); her cousin, Orla (Louisa Harland); their friends, Clare (Nicola Coughlan) and Michelle (Jamie-Lee O’Donnell); and Michelle’s cousin, James (Dylan Llewellyn), newly arrived from England and the target of the girls’ casual wrath because being anti-British is all they know.
But the political unrest of the times, from violent clashes covered on the TV news to a bombed bridge that snarls traffic, is just another routine annoyance for the teenagers and their colorful extended families. Meanwhile, they navigate daily life at Our Lady Immaculate College under the scrutiny and droll sarcasm of Sister Michael (Siobhan McSweeney), one of the show’s many highlights.
The classic “Young Cassidy” (1965), about famed Irish playwright Sean O’Casey, called “John Cassidy” in the film and played by Rod Taylor, is set in the no less turbulent times of 1911 Dublin and balances drama, romance and the blossoming of an artist.
It follows young Cassidy, a laborer and a member of both the Irish Transport and General Workers Union and the Irish Citizens Army, trained for uprisings against the British, as he struggles to write passionate, realistic plays about the political turmoil and the plight of the working class in Dublin.
“Young Cassidy” is credited to celebrated Irish-American director John Ford, whose numerous screen classics include the Ireland-set John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara romantic comedy, “The Quiet Man” (1952). But Ford became ill shortly after filming began and was replaced by Jack Cardiff. Ford made only one more film, “Seven Women” in 1966, and died in 1973.
Taylor, the Australian actor whose many screen credits include Hitchcock’s “The Birds” and the romantic comedy “Sunday in New York” opposite Jane Fonda, gets one of his best roles in “Young Cassidy” and makes the most of it, displaying considerable range.
The film’s supporting cast is equally superb. Julie Christie appears in the small but colorful role of prostitute Daisy Battles in the same year of her break-out performances in “Darling” and “Doctor Zhivago.” Maggie Smith, in one of her earliest roles, is captivating as Nora, the bookshop owner who encourages Cassidy’s literary ambitions as the two fall in love.
Some of the best scenes in the film depict Cassidy’s ascent to Dublin’s renowned Abbey Theatre, founded in 1904 by poet William Butler Yeats (Sir Michael Redgrave), and Lady Gregory (Dame Edith Evans), who becomes Cassidy’s kind but firm mentor and shepherds his plays, “The Shadow of a Gunman” and “Juno and the Paycock,” to successful productions in the 1920s.
O’Casy’s next play, the profane, personal and politically explosive “The Plough and The Stars,” about the 1916 Easter Rising, triggers a riot at the Abbey Theatre in 1926 and causes a rift between Cassidy and his colleagues. He decides to leave Ireland, his family and Nora for England. But he has found his voice as a writer.