Thursday, June 09, 2022

"Belfast": review

I admit I don't really know much about the Irish, despite having some Irish blood from my dad's side. Can't say I know much about Irish cinema, either, but if "The Commitments" and "Belfast" are any indication, the Irish aren't merely stereotypically feisty: they're a people filled with life and hope and optimism, even in the midst of the darkest times.

"Belfast" is a quasi-autobiographical 2021 drama written and directed by Kenneth Branagh that shows us The Troubles in Northern Ireland through the eyes of a nine-year-old boy named Buddy (who ostensibly represents Branagh himself; Branagh was born in 1960, and the Troubles began in 1969, the year I was born). While the story has something like a plot, it is primarily a slice of life, a core sample of what existence in Northern Ireland was like during a painful part of Ireland's recent history. Buddy (Jude Hill) lives in a council house with his family: big brother Will (Lewis McAskie), Ma (Caitríona Balfe), Pa (Jamie Dornan), Granny (Judi Dench), and Pop (Ciarán Hinds). For Buddy before The Troubles, life is mainly about getting through school, where he likes his smart classmate Catherine (Olive Tennant); fighting imaginary dragons on the street with a wooden sword and garbage-can lid as a shield; eavesdropping on his parents' tense conversations about debt and taxes; getting into trouble with his cousin Moira (Lara McDonnell) as they steal from Mr. Singh's sweet shop; and gaining life-wisdom from his grandparents, who still love each other and tease each other to no end. Alas, old Pop—a former coal miner—has what sounds like lung cancer, and he's refused to visit the hospital for a long time, but the coughing is becoming unmanageable. Pa, meanwhile, works in England and has to be away for weeks at a time, and in the latter part of the film, he gets an offer that would entail both a lot more money and a permanent move for the family. Ma, for her part, loves Belfast and is afraid to move anywhere else because Belfast is all she knows. She fears being rejected by the locals in England, who she imagines will despise their Irish accents and culture. The Troubles suddenly occur, and violence flares up as Protestants try to eject the local Catholics. Pa wants no part of this violence, but the fighting cannot be ignored, and the family's safety becomes paramount.

The movie opens in color, showing us modern Ireland, but most of the film is a flashback to 1969, and that era is portrayed largely in black and white, with some notable exceptions: every time the family goes out to see a movie or stage play, these are shown in color as a reflection of how Buddy/Branagh remembers his past. (This may be a hint about how Branagh, both an actor and a director, fell in love with film.) The story is a paean to childhood, and while it centers on The Troubles, it's about much more than that.

Branagh has gotten better as a director, I think, although he's been inconsistent. His 1989 "Henry V" was incredible, but his 1994 "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein" was a jumbled mess, and much later, in 2011, his "Thor" wasn't much better. "Belfast" sees Branagh back in fine form, though. He evokes nostalgia even among those of us who never lived through that period of history in that part of the world. The music of Van Morrison, himself a Northern Irish musician (and recently embroiled in COVID-related controversy), provides the film with an auditory through-line. Branagh also gets great performances from all his actors, with Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench (sporting an Irish accent) as particular standouts, but with Caitríona Balfe also making an impression as a mother who feels deep ties to her locality, and who has difficulty letting go. (It helps that I kind of have a crush on Balfe, who is easy on the eyes.) Little Jude Hill, a child actor, has to carry the movie, though, since the story centers on him. As child actors go, he's not bad, and he even manages to be funny in places. I didn't think he was great, though: there were times when it was obvious that the wittiness of the script was what carried a scene, not the boy's acting. That said, he did yeoman's work as a little kid in a lead role. Jamie Dornan's Pa is also well fleshed out as a man dealing with multiple problems at once: job, money, family, and the constant threat that he'll have to fall in line with the rest of the Protestants or risk being treated like a Catholic.

The movie ends on a sentimental note that I won't spoil here, but it left me with a lump in my throat and great sympathy for the Irish who had to endure The Troubles (which lasted three decades)—some of whom left Ireland, and some of whom stayed. Branagh dedicates his film to both groups of people, as well as to those whose lives were lost in the violence.

While "Belfast" carries an undercurrent of tragedy, it is, ultimately, an optimistic, feel-good film about a decent family forced to navigate an era of social agitation. It shows that it's possible to live life if you've got some pluck and a good sense of humor, and in the end, the film preaches tolerance, which is a welcome message today, in these still-troubled times.

1 comment:

John Mac said...

Another well-done review. As a person who rarely watches any movies, I really enjoy reading about what I've missed. That's likely as close as I'm going to get to seeing them, but your reviews are the next best thing to being there. Thanks!