Streaming: 50 years of the Troubles

As the government prepares to prorogue parliament and a no-deal Brexit becomes an ominous probability, the contentious matter of the “Irish backstop” is no longer a technical complication in a wider political argument: it is now a tangible, terrifying crisis in itself. Will our leaders, in their rash drive to force through Brexit at all costs, really risk a hard border in Ireland after such hard-won peace between north and south? Have the Troubles been forgotten so soon?

It’s surely with that rhetorical question in mind that Channel 4 and Film4 have rather cunningly kicked off September with a film mini-season dedicated to cinema of the Troubles – broadcast at scheduled night-owl times, but rather more conveniently continued on their All4 streaming service. The centrepiece of it all – premiering on Channel 4 tonight, before hitting All4 for 30 days – is 50 Years of the Troubles: A Journey Through Film, an hour-long documentary from irrepressible, Belfast-born film historian Mark Cousins, in which he considers the role cinema played as both an escape route and a representative snapshot for Irish folk caught in the turmoil.

Narrated in Cousins’s signature discursive style as it considers everything from Annie Get Your Gun to The Devil’s Own, it’s a gentle jumping-off point for the robust trio of films programmed by Film4 to supplement his commentary: ’71, Yann Demange’s heart-in-mouth study of a British soldier stranded in an IRA stronghold; The Crying Game, Neil Jordan’s still-crackling collision of national and sexual politics, which holds up even if we all know the once-ballyhooed twist; and Hunger, the stark, tactile Bobby Sands portrait that remains Steve McQueen’s greatest film to date. All three will likewise be hanging around on All4 – essential catch-up fare if you’ve never seen them.

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Pat Murphy’s Maeve (1981), starring Mary Jackson.

Pat Murphy’s Maeve (1981), starring Mary Jackson. Photograph: BFI Player

If you want to expand the mini-season on your own, meanwhile, the streaming universe has plenty of options – even if some keystone films of the Troubles are disappointingly hard to find online. (Paul Greengrass’s Bloody Sunday and Pat O’Connor’s Cal are oddly awol, while Alan Clarke’s brutal, seminal short Elephant can only be found chopped into four videos on Dailymotion – hardly the way it should be watched.) The BFI Player, however, reliably pitches in with Maeve, a remarkable, little-seen feminist angle on the era from 1981, following a young woman returning to Belfast after a long spell in London and defiantly asserting herself to her family and her republican lover. Pat Murphy’s film puts a gendered spin on Anglo-Irish relations too: it remains spiky and thought-provoking.

If you only associate Ken Loach with kitchen-sink realism, the jittery conspiracy-thriller mechanics of his 1990 film Hidden Agenda (available on iTunes) may surprise you. Starring Frances McDormand as an American lawyer on a mission to uncover the British government’s crimes against the Northern Irish, it’s one of his most overtly entertaining films – but still steams with righteous Loachian fury. Still underrated, meanwhile, is James Marsh’s coolly empathetic Shadow Dancer (2012), available on Google Play, among other outlets, with its taut, fierce performance from Andrea Riseborough as a cagey IRA terrorist turned MI5 informant.

Not everything under this thematic banner, however, has to be sobering or outright despairing – or even for adults. As a chaser to all that grit, Mickybo and Me (available on SkyStore) offers a gentle, sweet-natured growing-up portrait of two boys (one Catholic, one Protestant, mutually worshipful of Butch Cassidy) in 1970 Belfast, who dream of escaping their troubles in all senses and journeying to Australia. And over on Amazon, the rollicking musical biopic Good Vibrations – about record label founder Terri Hooley and the Belfast punk scene he cultivated amid social turmoil – is a lively reminder of the urgent art that emerges from rough times.

Niall Wright and John Joe McNeill in Mickybo and Me (2004).

Niall Wright and John Joe McNeill in Mickybo and Me (2004). Photograph: Universal Studios/PA

New to streaming & DVD this week

Avengers: Endgame
(Disney, 12)
The comic-book colossus makes its way to home entertainment – and by this point, really, you’re in or you’re out. More a souped-up Comic-Con convention than a film, but it’s done with confident bluster.

Out of Blue
(Spirit, 15)
British indie auteur Carol Morley and the literature of Martin Amis seem an unlikely mix on paper. On watching this disconcertingly stateless New Orleans noir with metaphysical overtones, they remain pretty unlikely on screen, but its spell works on some.

Memory: The Origins of Alien
(Dogwoof, 15)
As in his Psycho-oriented 78/52, Swiss film-maker Alexandre O Phillippe maker brings a fresh, eerie energy to the standard “making-of” doc formula, this time probing the mythology, psychology and dreamy design of Ridley Scott’s sci-fi classic.

Shock Corridor/The Naked Kiss
(Sony, E)
Two of Samuel Fuller’s most exhilarating, on-edge classics get the Criterion treatment, their buffed-up presentation accentuating just how expertly he walked the line between art and exploitation.

Watch a trailer for Avengers: Endgame.

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