Belfast brings Northern Ireland’s woes back to heart and home – Review


Rating: 5 stars

In the summer of 1969, violence hit the streets of Belfast. It wasn’t the first time, and it sure wouldn’t be the last. But it became the backdrop to the lives of the workers, the people for whom these streets were home. One of them was a very young Kenneth Branagh, who recently took advantage of the lull in work he found during Covid to put his childhood memories into an incredible new film, Belfast.

What impresses a child? How accurate or unbiased are their memories? Family, certainly, and trauma, big and small, all seem to carry roughly the same weight and come to the fore. In Belfast, we have it all, through Buddy (played by Jude Hill) – his parents’ reaction to the bombings on their doorstep; her brother, who gets caught in the gangs that roam the streets; the grandparents who loved him; his reluctance to steal from a local grocer. But we also see the times on the other side, and it’s just as fascinating. Buddy’s parents, played by Caitriona Balfe in a bright performance, and surprisingly strong and handsome Jamie Dornan face a marriage rocked by a job out of town, changing times and financial pressures. In a child-centered movie, we rarely see the honesty Branagh brings to this world.

Ma and Pa (the parents don’t have any other names in the movie, appropriate as young children really only know them that way) are wonderfully played by Balfe and Dornan. Their worry for their children, their fears for their relationship, and their worries about whether a move would hurt or help the family are so honest it almost feels like we, the audience, are looking out the window at a real conversation. While it’s very obvious that they love each other, especially in a mind-blowing scene where the family goes to a neighborhood ball, sometimes love isn’t enough. And these parents falter on this point, as many of us have done in long-term marriages. Their fears seemed very real and immediate. There is already a lot of “Oscar buzz” for Belfast, including Best Picture, and for Caitriona. We Outlander fans would definitely support the recognition – she’s really starting to play roles that recognize her as a major talent.

Despite British troops outside their door and the protesting Catholic sentiment that has fueled some of the violence, Buddy is more concerned with the immediate problems. There’s a girl at school he loves, and she’s JUST much better than him (and Catholic to boot), so to sit next to her he has to work harder on his homework and get better results on his weekly tests. Her father works “across the water” for two weeks straight, only coming home on alternate weekends. The world’s biggest worries are, for the most part, a little remote and exciting for a child, and Branagh does a terrific job of keeping that in perspective. We see the grown-up side – Ma, frightened by a particularly violent event, running down the street to grab Buddy and rush him home, Pa threatening a young organizer if he tries to recruit Buddy and his brother.

The other major force in Buddy’s life are his paternal grandparents, played wonderfully by Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench. While they support the cast in this cast, they are fully realized and fleshed out characters. “Pop” is the local handyman who repairs and stores all kinds of things; Granny is starting to get a bit lost with dementia, but still has a sweet smile and the full love and devotion of her husband. I grew up with Irish grandparents much like this – they loved us fiercely, grandchildren, and each other even more. These two made me cry! Pop has his own personal struggle, which deeply affects the rest of the family, just like my grandfather. Mine have been gone for many years, but Hinds and Dench made me feel like a young child who couldn’t do anything wrong in their eyes.

One of my favorite scenes (from Fandango) was following the family Christmas party. Stuffed with goodies and gifts, but shaken and upset by Mum and Dad telling them the family will be leaving Belfast soon, the children fell asleep under the tree. Mom and Dad discuss in low voices the future of the family and their marriage. Caitriona Balfe, speaking about this scene, said the boys had actually fallen asleep and she could hear some snoring while they were filming, making their work seem realistic. Again, the honesty of the writing and the performance was striking. Balfe, as Outlander fans know, inhabits her roles, and it’s hard to see where the character ends and the actress begins.

I was lucky enough to see this at the Chicago Film Festival, before the general release, where Branagh received a Lifetime Achievement Award. He stayed after the screening to discuss the film. It was shot mostly in black and white, as our memories tend to be, he said, with full color scenes from the movies his family loved to go to, including Chitty chitty bang bang. He remembers his parents as “glamor” and chose Balfe and Dornan in part because of their own glamor. I can’t disagree with that at all! The film was edited quickly – written during global Covid lockdown, then shot through an independent studio. But a movie like this takes a lifetime to edit – and it’s obvious that even though it was only written last year, it’s been brewing in Branagh’s head for many years.

The film was also screened at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival last week. Branagh, Balfe, Hinds and Jude Hill all discussed their own lives in Ireland. I was fascinated to learn that Hinds, who is Catholic, and Branagh, who is Protestant, grew up half a mile apart – but had to go to separate schools due to their religions. Now, says Hinds, there is a movement for integrated education, which will hopefully have an effect on the continuing tension between the two groups (the conflict is bigger than religion – it has more to do with who rule, Britain or a Free Irish State, but religion is a major component). Look at the entire panel here.

The soundtrack of this film is a gem. With Van Morrison – “The Belfast Cowboy” – and great music from the late 1960s, it conjured up all the memories that those of us of Branagh’s age will have of that time.

Sir Kenneth Branagh has had a truly varied career – formally trained as a Shakespearean actor, he also took a wickedly funny turn as Gilderoy Lockhart in the second installment of the Harry Potter films. He’s long been recognized as one of the great actors and directors of our generation, so it’s no surprise that he uses these talents to make a beautifully written and directed film. Hear Kenneth Branagh discuss the film on the EW podcast The Awardist (go to 3:20 p.m.). And learn more about the historic conflict between Belfast and Northern Ireland here.

Follow me on Twitter: @ ErinConrad2 and @ThreeIfBySpace
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Erin Conrad


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