Review: Belfast

Kenneth Branagh’s semi-autobiographical feature isn’t the first movie to depict an historical tragedy through the filter of heartwarming nostalgia, but it definitely feels as if it sets out to be the standard for such depictions. Branagh’s avatar is Buddy (Jude Hill), a 9-year-old boy in short pants living his best life in 1969 Belfast just as the infamous Troubles descended on the city. In the opening scene, Buddy is playacting as some sort of medieval knight in the streets just as a fight breaks out between Catholic residents of the street where Buddy lives and a marauding band of Protestants who demand the Catholics vacate the neighborhood. Branagh skillfully juxtaposes the everyday “business” of a working class community with the intruding violence of interlopers to the point where the two almost seem complementary. Buddy’s playful antics only add to the dissonance.

Buddy’s family is Protestant, and thus Branagh has to present their even-handedness as citizens—they are proud of their heritage but are on good terms with their Catholic neighbors and resent the pressure to align with their tribe—without falling into the trap of seeming as if he’s working from hindsight. And though he manages to pull it off during most of the development, he overcompensates for the family’s good intentions by making all the members, except for Buddy, somewhat generic in niceness. Buddy’s Pa (Jamie Dornan), a tradesman whose main venue for work is booming England, not Northern Ireland, fends off the local Protestant thugs with boilerplate professions of why-can’t-we-all-get-along, but since he’s mostly “over there” working, it’s up to Ma (Caitriona Balfe) to make sure Buddy and his older brother, Will (Lewise McAskie), are not pulled into the conflict. And that proves to be more work than she’s capable of, not so much because the boys are susceptible to the hate-mongering around them, but because they’re boys whose outlook is still governed more by momentary impulses than by intellect. Consequently, much of the Buddy-level action revolves around him getting into trouble with his mates, and you aren’t always sure if he, or the viewer, is meant to glean the political ramifications of his shenanigans. Much clearer in intent is the actions of his grandmother (Judi Dench) and ex-coal miner grandfather (Ciaran Hinds), whose only real focus as far as the movie is concerned is Buddy and each other. Granny shares with Buddy a love of the movies, which is perfectly conveyed in several scenes of the two partaking of Hollywood classics at the local picture show. Less resonant are the lectures that Pop lays on Buddy in a bid to make him more morally resilient to the bad faith at large on the street. In a sense, Branagh is trying to say that Buddy can somehow separate that bad faith from his own life by staying indoors, which sounds rather simplistic. In the end, Buddy and his family, like Branagh, leave Belfast for London, obviating the need for Branagh to take on the Troubles at full force.

Which isn’t to say Branagh fully avoids the hindsight trap. His use of the songs of Van Morrison, also a Belfast native, that were recorded later than the Troubles and which convey a philosophical tone the movie is at pains to replicate, is a distraction; as is the opening and closing shots in color (the part of the movie that takes place in 1969 is black-and-white), which suggest that it’s all in the past and let bygones be bygones. People find Belfast emotionally effective as a product of personal remembrance, but it also feels like a cheat. 

Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Chanter Hibiya (050-6868-5001), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Shibuya Cine Quinto (03-3477-5905), Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Shibuya Parco White Cine Quinto (03-6712-7225), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024).

Belfast home page in Japanese

photo (c) 2021 Focus Features LLC

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