Winner at Toronto and tipped to scoop other top prizes at the Baftas and Oscars, Kenneth Branagh’s latest film is a semi-autobiographical drama about growing up during the Troubles. Although it contains sentimental and selfish moments (and hits the ‘killer Van Morrison track’ button way too often), I loved it. The majority of the scenes can be shot in black and white, but the logic behind the story is anything but.
It’s 1969 and North Belfast kid Buddy (Jude Hill) is obsessed with football, dragons, comic books and his smart and touchy classmate, Catherine (Olive Tennant).
Buddy’s family lives in a “mixed” neighborhood and our hero is flabbergasted when a riot breaks out on his street, meant to scare the Catholics away. Buddy’s clan is Protestant, but his Pa (Jamie Dornan), Ma (Caitriona Balfe), older brother, Will (Lewis McAskie) and grandparents, Pop and Granny (Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench) despise “gangsters”. at the head of the troubles. Militia leader Billy Clanton (Colin Morgan) insists that all Protestants offer “money or a pledge”. And though Dad refuses to do either, Will and Buddy are swept up in the violence. As the British Army becomes a permanent fixture in the area, Pa – working mostly in England, as a carpenter – implores Ma to consider relocation.
Although full of (cute) jokes, Belfast is incredibly tense. What is happening is ethnic cleansing (Clanton uses the word “cleanse”) and what makes it so baffling is that the beautiful Protestant families on Buddy’s Street are complicit in the process.
Pa is twice referred to as a “lone ranger”, while a series of montages and Tex Ritter’s ballad High Noon connect him to Gary Cooper’s Will Kane. He’s also downed from below, so he towers over us, and his excellent hand-eye coordination (he’s an expert bowler) pays dividends in a post-looting showdown that shows the whole pulchritudinous family getting together. closing in to rout the gun. Claton.
Guess the real Mr. and Mrs. Branagh didn’t save their son from being shot in the head. Which doesn’t bother because, seconds after that dramatic and lovely scene, Pop says the loyalists will now “send someone serious” after Pa, making it clear that Clanton has always been a footling enemy and the problem is so bigger than the movie- dazzled Buddy can understand.
To put it another way, Buddy is named after the innocent protagonist of the cozy Christmas classic, Elf. And Hinds’ beautifully wise, sparkling-eyed Pop certainly owes Santa something. But don’t be fooled. Nothing can magically eliminate the prejudices that tear this community apart. And anyone who says this personal film isn’t political is kidding themselves.
By the way, the cinematography and sound design are a treat. In one sequence, the camera rotates 360 degrees as time races and the world falls silent. There’s also plenty of fun pitting Pa and Ma’s pristine, spartan home against the more rickety gaffe of grandparents. The camera wanders to the open windows of both houses, giving us a good view of Pop’s television, which appears to have been feasted on by mice.
Admittedly, the visuals of Roma (a film to which Belfast has been compared a lot) are more original. On the other hand, it’s rare, even these days, for a director to have working-class roots, and Branagh carries the flag beautifully for anyone whose babysitting routine involved a grandmother rather than a nanny.
Branagh – who horribly misused Dench in Artemis Fowl – has now atoned for that crime. Dench, like the entire cast, is irresistible. And as well as making a decent fist of the Belfast accent, she has the last laugh. As Granny watches her loved ones leave, Dench growls, with a fury indistinguishable from grief, “Go away now and don’t look back.
Branagh, of course, chose to disobey that order. He’s a highly regarded director, but for me it’s the first project he’s done that doesn’t struggle to impress. Belfast casually acknowledges the wickedness of existence. Here’s a playful version of nostalgia, which somehow warms your heart, even if it chills your blood.
98mins, 12A. At the movie theater