Kenneth Branagh’s “Belfast” is a thing of absolute joy.
A painstakingly earnest, heartfelt and honest portrayal of a young boy’s coming of age during “The Troubles” of Northern Ireland in the 1960s, Branagh’s semi-autobiographical tale is elegantly crafted, heartbreaking at times and while it beautifully upholds some of the tropes of the genre, it cleverly avoids a number of somewhat obvious but emotionally manipulative and unnecessary plot points and the story is in this sense refreshingly unique.
“Belfast” which Branagh has described as his “most personal film”, is told from the perspective of 9 year old Buddy (Jude Hill), and depicts the lives of Buddy and his working class, Ulster Protestant family as conflicts escalate in Belfast at the hands of a violent, Protestant loyalist group targeting the remaining Catholic residents living in their area. Buddy’s Pa (Jamie Dornan) is targeted by the local leader of the Protestant “cause” and insists upon his involvement, threatening him and his family if he were not to comply. Buddy is a young and chirpy lad, and doesn’t quite understand the clashes, or why his Ma (Caitriona Balfe) is sometimes sad or the fact that his Pa has to go away to England to work. Or even how to best tell the smartest and most beautiful girl in his whole class, Catherine, that he loves and wants to marry her, since she’s a Catholic and all.
It’s evident that there was a lot of love invested into this production by Branagh, who wrote the screenplay as well as directed. The dialogue is outstanding, and clearly written with a real understanding and familiarity of that iconic, quick witted Irish sense of humour and intricate word play and sense of story. It was a real gamble having the film oriented so heavily around a nine year old (as the old Hollywood adage goes, never work with kids or animals) but Buddy as the protagonist is so incredibly likeable that far from detracting from the story, Jude Hill is actually one of the strongest and most admirable elements of “Belfast”. In terms of demonstrating the impacts of the conflict between the Catholics and the Protestants, it was a clever creative choice for us an audience to experience it all through the eyes of those who genuinely have no stake in the fight but have been caught up in the conflict through no fault of their own. What Branagh has managed to demonstrate, is that even though Buddy and his family are living in amongst the fighting, its not the centre of their world. Of course they worry about the danger and for their neighbours and what will happen to the Catholics, but they still worry about the health of Granny (Judi Dench) and Pop (Ciaran Hinds), financial strains and find moments of joy of their own. It’s a scary time, but life goes on.
One of the most memorable scenes in the film is one in which, after attending a funeral, Pa sings “Everlasting Love” with the band and dances with Ma in front of the guests. It’s such a heartwarming little scene in so many ways; we see a mother and father through the eyes of total and complete adoration from their little boy, we see citizens caught up in trying and scary times finding moments of happiness and we see a young couple, very much in love, just having some fun. I think its one of the reasons that Branagh decided to film in black and white the way he did. The cinematography is incredibly beautiful, as if every individual shot could exist in its own right as a work of art. Every now and then, when the characters are watching something on stage or the television, we see it in colour, as they do. Visually it’s a very striking technique, and could represent the characters finding beauty or light in their dark times, or perhaps Ma and Pa deliberating to take their family away from Belfast in search of a safer life for their children. It could be for a number of reasons, but its nice to see a filmmaker play around with the medium because it’s what’s right for the film rather than for pure tokenism.
I’m not going to spoil the film for those of you who haven’t seen it, but towards the end, there’s a scene which I felt sure was going to end in a certain way. I had seen it coming for a little while and was disappointed that that’s where the story was heading. But then… what I had expected didn’t happen! I frowned for a moment and then realised that that’s not what this film was about, it’s instead something completely different. It was a brave thing for Branagh to do, and I was impressed that he was able to stick to his vision of what he wanted his story to be, instead of what Hollywood would have ordinarily called for (especially those attracting Oscar buzz).
This is absolutely my favourite film of this upcoming Oscar season, and I hope that it wins Best Picture. Often Best Picture winners are those which are artistically very sombre and depicting depressing stories which audiences would rarely engage in otherwise (“The Shape of Water”, “The English Patient”, “Nomadland”). “Belfast” is a beautiful story and an unashamed crowd pleaser, with a resounding message of the importance of one’s country, family and neighbour. It’s a film which will make audiences feel lighter and happier when they leave, and sometimes that’s exactly what we need.
By Jock Lehman