KENNETH BRANAGH'S BELFAST
Put an Irishman on the spit and you can always get another Irishman to turn him.
--George Bernard Shaw
Sir Kenneth Branagh first discovered his love of movies growing up in Belfast, Ireland. From Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) to oldies such as High Noon (1952), the boy sat in the cinema wide-eyed with wonder. At least, that's how we see him through an extraordinary performance by 11-year-old Jude Hill as Buddy in Branagh's most personal story, Belfast (2021).
Semi-autobiographical, the acclaimed director first emphasizes the young boy's playful nature, imagination and halcyon outlook until Buddy and his family must face 'The Troubles." Ma (a superb Caitriona Balfe), Pa (Jamie Dornan in his best role yet), Will, the stoic brother (Lewis McAskie), Pop (Buddy's grandfather, Ciarán Hinds, long overdue for an Oscar), and Granny (Dame Judy Dench, as wry as ever) all live in an attached house with no garden and an outhouse. They manage with grace, dignity. Then their world begins to crumble.
Belfast explores the explicit and implicit reasons behind the violent conflict that began in 1968 which lasted for thirty years. First and foremost, Protestant Unionists want to stay part of the United Kingdom and Catholic Nationalist who want to unite with Ireland--a centuries-old bitterness that manifests in often-seen violent hostilities. However, high unemployment and taxes, along with religious divisiveness also contribute to the discord. For example, Pa must work in England for weeks at a time because he can't find work in Belfast. Ma then assumes the role of nurturer and disciplinarian of the two boys. A job made more difficult by the emerging conflict.
Besides the anger, laughter, tears and joy that permeate the excellent screenplay by Branagh, he attempts, with some success, to present the better part of human nature lurking amongst those whose only desire involves keeping their family safe, no matter the politics or religion. Naïve, maybe, but the movie doesn't pretend to provide answers to the larger questions.
Deafening explosions, scary moments involving the children give weight to enormous pressure for residents to flee. Not an easy decision, but when Pa gets an opportunity to provide a better life for his children, the choice becomes less burdensome, especially after British troops enter the city and looting, riots escalate.
If ever there were a better time to watch this often-painful exploration, the trials that Buddy, his brother, parents and paternal grandparents must navigate couldn't be more germane. Innocence dashed by the constant threat of danger draws parallels to the violent neighborhoods of big cities here and around the world.
Branagh offsets the heaviness of the never-ending turmoil outside and in the family home with delightful humor, particularly from Pop and Granny. Hinds and Dench play characters who've seen it all, know the realities, but continue to sustain hope--an example that helps sustain the others.
In terms of technique, Branagh's decision to film the present-day opening in color then transition to black&white helps remove overt symbolism from the equation e.g., Northern Irish orange and Irish green. The director and his cinematographer, Haris Zambarloukos, also have a detailed vision of contrast--bold, sharp lighting versus softened, filtered imagery that may have the viewer gasping with the same wonderment about filmmaking as Buddy does watching the movies. Those particular scenes recall the Italian homage to celluloid, Cinema Paradiso (1988).
For those unused to heavy Irish/Northern-Irish dialect, listeners will need to pay close attention to the seamless dialogue (seeing Belfast a second time with subtitles would help). Further, the often-used insertion of period-appropriate tunes sometimes distract from Van Morrison's excellent score. These few irritants pale compared to the gem that is Belfast.
As the Irish poet William Butler Yeats wrote: "Being Irish, he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through temporary periods of joy." No truer statement could be made about Belfast.
Rated PG-13 for minimal language, bombings and riots (sans the usual blood and gore) and disturbing confrontations.
Now playing at select theaters. Locals: see Belfast at the Chatham Orpheum Theater, Chatham, MA.
Earlier reviews not seen on this website (before May 20, 2021) are available on https://www.rottentomatoes.com/critic/wendy-shreve/movies or my previous blog site, featuringfilm.com
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