Now on VOD, Belfast may be Kenneth Branagh’s most significant directing effort since directing a four-hour version of Hamlet 25 years ago. It’s a comedy, it’s a drama, it’s a piece of nostalgia, it’s usually autobiographical, it’s shot in black and white (most of the time, anyway), it’s the truth , it’s a myth and it’s Oscar bait, but don’t judge it for either of these. Branagh wrote the screenplay during the Covid lockdown, recreated the streets outside his childhood home in Belfast and got a stellar cast in Judy Dench, Ciaran Hinds, Caitriona Balfe, Jamie Dornan and, maybe the most important, Jude Hill, the spark plug talent replacing Boy Branagh, 1969. One thing is clear about the film – Branagh puts a lot of what he has into it: heart, humor, honesty and affection.
BELFAST: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
The essential: It’s a sunny and joyful day in Belfast: 15th August 1969. Children run, play and play football in the street, mothers shout for their boys to come home, shoppers and shopkeepers mingle and discuss. Buddy (Hill) plays with friends, battling wooden swords and trash can-lid shields, just as Protestant rioters rumble through the streets targeting Catholic homes, smashing windows and throwing rocks and sticking rags into tanks of gasoline and setting them on fire and rolling them down the street and backing away as they explode. Buddy’s mother, known only as Ma (Balfe), rushes through the commotion and grabs her son and the trash can lid, holding him above their heads, the rocks bouncing off it. She rushes him into the house where he hides under a table. His brother Will (Lewis McAskie) soon joins him.
Dad (Dornan) is not there. He works in England, sometimes for weeks at a time, as a carpenter, a carpenter’s trade. They are Protestant in a mixed, blue-collar community. Mom and Dad don’t like going to church. But they’re going to please Grandma (Dench), Dad’s mom, and Buddy is clearly quite terrified of the fire-and-brimstone-then-please-pass-the-plate sermon that he receives from their pastor who is sweating profusely – there is a fork in the road and one leads to heaven and the other to hell and guess which one is the catholic. Granny is a dear old woman, 50 years later with Pop (Hinds), and Buddy visits them frequently, to ask them questions and listen to their wise answers, and when I say “wise” I mean both” wisdom” and “wise”. -ass.” They have a hell of a sense of humor.
Buddy loves going to the movies – they see One million years BC that Buddy and Will appreciate for dinosaurs; Pa, and maybe also Buddy and Will, like it for Raquel Welch, while Ma is not amused. Pa has tax debts and Ma pays them diligently when he’s gone and when she pays them back to zero and asks for certification, the fucking government just finds more debts. Buddy also likes Catherine (Olive Tennant), the waist-length blonde-haired girl at school who is good at math and therefore inspires Buddy to be good at math as well because the students are seated according to their scores at the multiplication tests. Pop’s advice: smudge the handwriting so the 7 looks like a 2 or maybe a 1 as well, and he knows it works because he’s also in debt, just like Pa. Anyway or, as you surely know, the tumult of the streets is not over. Barricades and checkpoints line the neighborhood, and a local Protestant bully (Colin Morgan) continues to pressure Pa to choose one side or another. That’s why mum and dad are considering – and fighting, you might say – uprooting themselves and leaving Belfast and everyone and everything they know. For their boys.
What movies will this remind you of? : It differs in tone and point of view, but that of Alfonso Cuaron Rome is equally powerful, sumptuously nostalgic in black and white with depth.
Performance to watch: Please don’t make me choose one. There’s not a single cliche in any of these performances: Branagh’s clever and fun storyline benefits Dench and Hinds the most – they get all the best lines and remind us why they’re old pros. Dornan shows a depth we haven’t seen from him in his greatest films and has terrific chemistry with Balfe, who has a rugged, Laura Linney-like screen presence. And Hill is a gifted charmer with precise comedic timing.
Memorable dialogue: “These curries, I tried them once. I had to wear a diaper for a week,” says Granny
Sex and skin: Nothing.
Our opinion : Belfast is a triumph of tone and point of view. Branagh channels the disastrous aftermath – the start of The Troubles, essentially a 30-year civil war – through the eyes of a schoolboy, who is blissfully unaware of his innocence. He’s a very typical nine-year-old in that way. He was shaped by his parents and grandparents, who are good, loving people who do their best for their families whether the streets are full of joy or full of floats. He was raised Protestant and sees the larger conflict very simply: Catholics can do whatever they want, no matter how horrible, and still go to heaven if they confess their sins. A terrible feeling on paper, but hearing a child say it? It’s funny. But he is also immersed in a community that is a place of love, full of Catholics and Protestants content with their differences and united by the love that closeness brings.
The film does not focus on upheaval; instead, it shoots in the background of everyday family life – barbed wire in the foreground of a shot, a television report signs for star trek. The scenes are greatly enhanced by both Branagh’s unwavering adherence to Buddy’s perspective and his own idyllic memories. Once the poignant turmoil of the opening sequence has passed, the story settles into the offbeat rhythm of the boy’s life: his calculation to get closer to the math genius goes far beyond simple multiplication. He spends time talking and listening to his grandparents. He collects Matchbox cars. There’s an embarrassing shoplifting incident. Every time Dad leaves town for work, he advises Buddy, “If you can’t be good, be careful.” Buddy and Will watch The man who shot Liberty Valance on TV, pretending not to listen while mum and dad passionately discuss money or the likelihood of moving the family to Sydney or Vancouver.
An exemplary moment in Buddy’s life happens in the movies, of course – just look where Branagh ended up. Pop is in the hospital with sick lungs, so Grandma follows the family as they watch Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and when the car goes over a cliff and takes off, everyone in the theater leans forward and gasps. Uh huh. We can trust this film’s point of view as far as a car can fly. But that’s how Branagh chooses to remember the moment: with childlike wonder.
The film is cut into the whole canvas of such an embellishment. That doesn’t make the movie meaningless or empty of truth; telling a story of deadly conflict from a child’s perspective is invaluable because it underscores the value of naivety and youthful purity. Buddy gives the story a levity that emphasizes life’s joys far more than its burdens. Written and edited with great economy (and episodically, like memory), shot with the wide-eyed clarity of high-contrast black-and-white, Belfast is a compendium of Branagh’s Age of Innocence. He is shaded by homesickness but radiates warmth. It’s much, much sweeter than bitter. Well, much more.
Our call: SPREAD IT. Belfast is absolutely lovely.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Learn more about his work at johnserbaatlarge.com.