dir: Kenneth Branagh
If you ever wanted to watch a movie about The Troubles in Ireland during the 1960s, but didn’t want to see too much brutality or killing, then have I got a feel good movie for you!
The big question of the film, called Belfast, is whether the family at the centre of the film, is going to leave Belfast, because shit is getting really crazy. They are Protestants living in a mostly Protestant street, but they themselves have no issues with the Catholics in their midst. At least Buddy (Jude Hill) doesn’t get why he should hate them too.
Ma (Catriona Balfe, of Outlander fame) yells at the kids a lot, and fights with her husband Pa (Jamie Dornan), who is mostly away working in London. That leaves Buddy free to do whatever the hell it is kids can do in streets that are barricaded, where the occasional car is blown up, and the British Army patrols around like it owns the place.
Buddy loves going to the movies, and his eyes light up whenever they get to go. Most of the film is in black and white, but when they’re at the pictures, the screen lights up in colour. Granny (Dame Judi Dench) also has the reflection in colour on her glasses as she watches a car flying around, and as the masses sing along with Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, who still remains our fine four-fendered friend.
Buddy sees himself, thanks to an unusually fire and brimstone reverend’s sermon, to be at the crossroads of two paths, the path of goodness and earthly and heavenly reward, or the hellfire path of eternal damnation and occasional discomfort. The thing is, though, he can’t remember which is which, and life doesn’t always provide obvious signposts.
He has an older friend who routinely tries to get him involved in seriously shady shit, like shoplifting, and, later on, looting, but his heart’s not really in it. But like any budding crim knows, snitches get stitches, so he knows to keep his mouth shut.
Until his Ma grabs a hold of his ear at least. You might be wondering what the point of all this crap is, and, the thing is, I can’t really tell you. This is a mildly autobiographical story about Branagh’s own upbringing, so mostly it’s about what he remembers life was like when he was a kid. Everything, well, almost everything, is from his perspective. If a conversation between adults is shown, he has to be lurking somewhere nearby, unseen. Whether it’s the jerk from the Ulster Unionists bailing up Pa for his money or his time, or husband and wife tearing strips off of each other, Buddy has to be nearby in order for us in the audience to be privy to it.
Is it that necessary, that they use it as a conceit, a story-telling technique? I think it works well enough. It enhances the idea that we’re not looking at what actually happened: We’re seeing how it looked and felt from the perspective of a small boy, too light-hearted and joyful to be tainted by the horrors happening around him. And from that boy’s perspective, the stuff happening in the news or beyond the borders of his street aren’t as important as what’s happening to his parents or grandparents.
Or the innocent love he has for a Catholic girl at his school that he can’t bring himself to talk to, and yet he’ll move heaven and Earth, and even maybe the moon in order to sit next to her.
I don’t know or care how accurate the tale told is: that’s Kenneth Branagh’s business. At a guess, his parents possibility weren’t as stunningly attractive as Catriona Balfe and Jamie Dornan. His grandparents weren’t as rascally or as curmudgeonly as the great Ciaran Hinds or the even greater Dame Judi Dench. You have to give the production props for at least hiring an all Irish cast for this pearler, and for not leaning into too many of the clichés we’ve come to associate with this type of Oirish movie making. There’s not grinding poverty and starvation, rampant alcoholism, or mothers with 15 or more kids just because of the crime of being Catholic; there isn’t crushing domestic abuse or child abuse, or, unusual for the era, anything about the Catholic Church’s centuries of destroying children.
And it’s almost strange, almost quaint, to hear a young Irish family worried about emigrating to London, worried that their strange customs and accents will make them outcasts and pariahs in their new homeland. Where they’ll be exploited or persecuted for being different.
Hmm, really makes you think, for a minute at least, that Irish Lives should Matter too.
There’s such an obvious affection for the place (I have no idea whether it was actually filmed in Belfast), for the people, that it’s less a tourism ad, less a nostalgic trip into someone else’s childhood memories, and more a love letter to another time and place that someone still holds dear. I mean, would you think a kid that grew up amidst the Troubles, who was okay at school and committed a few crimes along the way would grow up to be celebrated thespian and director Kenneth Fucking Branagh? I mean, who would have thunk it, indeed?
In case we’re wondering how Buddy becomes Kenneth, well, there is a scene where a young buddy is reading a Thor comic while sitting in the gutter, which completely establishes the through line from Belfast slum to directing a Hemsworth in a Marvel epic. It was bound to happen, it’s just, yes, well, Branagh throwing so-called easter eggs into his movies is kinda like a guy in his 50s telling you how much he likes TikTok.
The other thing, and this is like a really easy sell / obvious manipulative crap, but the stuff with the grandparents, with those two old pros, it killed me, it fucking slayed me. I was tearing up just whenever they were giving each other the business, or speaking mock insulting / affectionate, or every time it was implied they weren’t going to be around much longer.
Killed. Me. And the last scene, with Granny watching her remaining family leave on the bus…I think I lost a year or two off of my own life, feeling as much sorrow as I did for her.
This is mostly an upbeat flick. There’s no real drama or stakes, the stuff with the violent Protestants never really feels that real (and is resolved, during a riot, in such a comically unserious way), the IRA never really get a look in, and the Brit Army isn’t shooting people outright, at least not when Buddy’s around. We know the family will survive and prosper, and good luck to them, all them crazy kids. Hope they all got what they wanted in London, like, opened an Irish pub or something.
Belfast was fun and highly enjoyable (thanks mostly to the wonderful boy playing Buddy), even with all that way too much Van Morrison music, though it’s not very deep, and that’s exactly what I needed on a Saturday night to delight / not aggravate the family.
7 times screaming “It’s Biological” as an almost punchline is one of the funniest movie moments of the year for me out of 10
“Go. Go now. Don't look back. I love you, son.” - Belfast