NEW TO THEATERS! Kenneth Branagh has played everything from Russians to Nazis to English kings to patrician American southerners. As such, it’s sometimes easy to forget he’s Irish. Much of the charm of the writer/director/actor’s drama Belfast is that it consistently demonstrates that no matter what he does on or off-screen, he’ll never stop loving his hometown. His affection also comes with a vividly candid description of why his family and others left. After watching the film, you’ll adore the people and the titular city, but the horror of Troubles in the six counties that make of Northern Ireland is always lurking in the background.
Thankfully, the senseless sectarian violence that happened when Branagh was nine is history. Belfast opens with a montage showing a modern, vibrant metropolis that anyone would be lucky to call home. Then, the movie switches to black-and-white when going back to the year 1969. This transition might have been heavy-handed, but Branagh does more than simply make the same place look older. Some of the energy seems lost from Belfast, and he gradually prepares viewers for the gritty atmosphere to come.
Buddy (lovable newcomer Jude Hill) strolls through the streets of his Protestant neighborhood proudly carrying a wooden sword, and a trash can lid for a shield. On his way to his parents’ flat, he seems more preoccupied with the make-believe dragons he’ll slay than anything going on around him. That changes in a heartbeat as bombs go off and previously tranquil residents panic or become violent. Belfast stops looking like any other city. Pavement literally flies off the ground.
“…relentlessly taunts Buddy’s Pa to join him in terrorizing Catholics and looting stores…”
This may be Branagh’s most formidable achievement. Having worked with big and small budgets, he knows how to achieve impressive images no matter what. He does so in Belfast despite working with a fraction of the cash he’d have on Thor. As a result, Buddy’s confusion and horror become all too real, and his innocence is the first casualty of a decades-long struggle. Friends and neighbors who used to speak freely with each other stop talking and start walling up individual parts of town. The term “peace walls” would seem amusingly ironic if people didn’t have genuine reasons to fear for their safety.
Some neighbors form a watch to keep outsiders from stirring trouble, but other Protestants like Billy Clanton (Colin Morgan) use the interfaith feud to act more like gangsters than revolutionaries. He relentlessly taunts Buddy’s Pa (Jamie Dornan) to join him in terrorizing Catholics and looting stores and seems insistent on financial contributions to his self-proclaimed cause. If Billy knew more about Pa’s situation, he’d learn that he doesn’t have any cash to donate.
Pa has a promising future working on English construction projects, but back taxes and a weakness for horses justifiably worry Ma (Caitriona Balfe). While Pa is away, she raises Buddy and his brother, Will (Lewis McAskie), between struggling to manage the family’s books. Because Pa is skilled and has management skills, he’s in somewhat better shape than the other residents of his block. As trouble escalates, so does unemployment.
Before you start wishing you’d laced your popcorn with Prozac, Belfast returns to conversations between Buddy and his grandparents (Judi Dench, Ciarán Hinds). His grandmother seems mystified at the miniature cars Buddy plays with and thinks that Chitty Chitty Bang Bang sounds more like a horror film than for children. His grandfather is consistently loving and so full of charm that one understands why no one has come to collect on the mountain of debt he owes.
"…makes viewers admire those who remained in the community as it became harder to live there."
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