Belfast

Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast is a gem of a movie and easily one of the best movies I’ve seen in 2021.  An autobiographical take on his own childhood, the movie focuses on the last year Buddy (Branagh’s stand-in) and his family lived in Belfast, Ireland before financial troubles and The Troubles forced them to relocate to Manchester.

Belfast is a beautiful movie, perfectly shot in gorgeous black-and-white.  Yes, B&W is the go-to way to depict the past (see: Mank, Roma, The Lighthouse).  Unlike other films, where B&W seems more like a gimmick, each scene in Belfast takes on a storybook quality that invites you in instead of drawing attention to itself.  The acting is exceptional throughout, featuring touching performances by Caitriona Balfe as Ma and Jamie Dornan as Pa.  Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds round out the exceptional supporting cast as Granny and Pop.  Their scenes together, where Pop’s Irish Wisdom meets its match in Granny’s acerbic wit, are priceless.  Branagh struck gold in casting Jude Hill as Buddy, an unknown before this movie but likely a rising star from here on out.

If I could only use one word to describe Belfast, it would be affection.  Branagh, and by extension Buddy, clearly loves everything about this period of his life: his family and friends, the neighborhood and its streets, even the thick clouds that fill the sky.  Branagh’s story is a sentimental one, but it’s emotions are earned honestly.  The script is pitch perfect, with every conversation feeling real and lived-in.  There are moments of Irish wit, but that comes with the territory.  (The movie is incredibly funny throughout.)

Belfast represents Branagh’s most personal directorial effort yet.  In a career that started with much fanfare, only to dovetail into more workaday projects (Thor, Cinderella, Artemis Fowl), this movie represents more than a return to form.  It’s an elevation of his art to an entirely new level.  Highly recommended.

Belfast is told from the viewpoint of Buddy (Jude Hill), a stand-in for Branagh.  Through his eyes, life in Belfast is simply wonderful.  Everyone on his street knows everyone else.  Buddy spends his time after school playing with his mates until his mom (in concert with all of the other moms) calls him home for tea.  He spends his evenings watching television, rapt by shows like Star Trek and movies like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and High Noon.  One can easily see how Branagh got into acting and later directing.

While Buddy is surrounded by a loving and supportive family, his life is not as idyllic as he perceives it to be.  His Pa (Jamie Dornan) works in a shipyard in Manchester and is gone for weeks at a time, leaving Ma (Caitriona Balfe) to deal with a steady stream of debt letters and playing dodge the rent collector.  In the evening his parents have tense discussions about money, which Buddy hears but doesn’t fully comprehend.  At one point, Buddy sheepishly admits to his cousin Vanessa (Nessa Eriksson) that his parents can’t give him money for candy.  Buddy understands that money is tight, but only how it impacts him directly.

Buddy never really considers himself to be poor because of his rich family life.  In scene after scene, Belfast makes clear that Buddy loves his family and enjoys spending time with them.  Even routine visits with his grandparents are cherished memories.  When visiting with Pa, Pop (Ciarán Hinds) drinks and holds court from the outside toilet.  On solo visits for afternoon tea, Pop regales Buddy with wry witticisms while Gran (Judi Dench) responds with crusty barbs.  (Their yin-yang routine is a highlight of the movie.)  The weekends when Pa comes home are a special time for Buddy.  During the day, Pa plays games with Buddy and his friends, confirming that he, like every Dad, has at least one magical talent.  In the evening the family goes to the pictures, where One Million Years B.C. and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang increase Buddy’s fascination with cinema.  (Hey, we all gotta start somewhere!)

As if money troubles weren’t adding enough stress, Buddy’s neighborhood also happens to be ground zero for The Troubles.  Protestant rioters repeatedly take to the streets, directing their anger towards Catholic houses and businesses.  (At the outset, rioters break the windows of the homes of his neighbors across the street, but leave his home untouched because his family lives on the Protestant side.)  Buddy experiences each violent outburst first-hand, and they  shock and frightening him in equal measure.

Pa’s reluctance to side with the Protestants against the Catholics puts him at odds with the leader of the neighborhood rioters.  This, coupled with tax debt that will take years to get out from under, create a turning point for the family.  Pa unequivocally wants to leave Belfast for a life with better financial prospects that is free from strife, while Ma cannot see leaving the home where she and her husband grew up.  Ultimately, the situation becomes untenable and the family departs for greener pastures, but not without regret for those they left behind.

Branagh’s decision to tell this story entirely from Buddy’s standpoint took courage.  Not only that, but he keeps Buddy’s understanding of what he experiences to that of a typical ten year-old.  He resists the temptation to add dramatic irony, as well as making Buddy wise beyond his years.  Buddy hears every word his parents say when they think he’s not listening, particularly when they talk about the rent or the years it will take to pay off their tax debt.  As a child, he doesn’t comprehend how their discussions may result in a dramatic change in his life.  Similarly, he knows that Protestants are attacking Catholics because of their religious beliefs, but his understanding is that of a child.  (He knows about the blessings with water, but not what it signifies.)  

I can understand why some may be frustrated that Belfast doesn’t investigate its weightier themes more fully, but from my personal experience, I fully got where Branagh was coming from.  When I was Buddy’s age, I didn’t understand the Iran hostage situation or why my parents were getting divorced.  If I were to tell my story, I could tell it through my adult eyes or through my eyes as a child when they happened.  Branagh chose the latter, which wasn’t wrong any more than choosing the former would have been right.  He wanted to tell us a story about a time and place he remembered fondly, through the eyes of someone similar to himself as a child, and how two serious issues (that he didn’t understand at the time) had a dramatic impact on his life.  On that level, Belfast is an unquestionable triumph.

As a director, Branagh showed promise as a director early on, with his takes on Shakespeare (Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet) and Dead Again.  Since that time, his work on films like Thor, Cinderella and Murder on the Orient Express could at best be described as workaday and competent.  Compared to those films, Belfast exists on an entirely different level.

Filmed with gorgeous black-and-white photography, Branagh’s love for this period of his life permeates every scene.  Establishing shots of Belfast and its cloud-filled skyline take on a romantic, dreamlike feel.  Branagh presents each scene Buddy shares with members of his family as if he were sharing photos from his family album.

Belfast is equally impressive in front of the camera, with every role perfectly cast.  Branagh certainly hit the jackpot with newcomer Jude Hill as Buddy, who absolutely nails every line.  Amazingly, this was only Hill’s second professional acting job.  Having a relative unknown carry a movie is always risky, but Branagh struck gold with Hill.

The supporting cast is brilliant throughout, with all of the performances uniformly sympathetic and touching.  Caitriona Balfe’s portrait of Ma is pitch perfect, providing the story with its emotional center.  Balfe hits every note convincingly, particularly in the scene where she tries to instill a modicum of discipline and respect in Buddy after he humorously steals a box of laundry detergent during a riot.  

Jamie Dornan also is excellent as Pa, a hard-working and devoted family man who still retains his boyish charm.  The scene where he belts out “Everlasting Love” to Ma is one of the flashiest scenes in the movie, and will be the one most people will remember.  But Dornan is so solidly good in every scene he’s in, his performance is a revelation.  Dornan shines in many throwaway moments, it’s hard to single out just one.  When he advises Buddy about being careful if you can’t be good, he cuts the seriousness with a dash of wink.  Dornan’s delivery is on the mark and priceless, a great performance all around.

As Gran and Pop, Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds are a joy to behold.  I loved every minute they were on screen.  Their scenes together are so hilarious I wish there were more of them in the movie.  They’re the Irish grandparents I never knew I wanted.

There’s been much internet chatter about how Belfast uses too many Van Morrison songs.  I only know three of his songs, and none of them were included in the movie.  (Nope, no “Brown-Eyed Girl” or “Moondance”.)  What I did hear was unfamiliar and perfectly fine.  Take that for what it’s worth.

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