If you’ve got a film called Belfast then you’ve got to expect it to have something to do with the Northern Ireland conflict; the city is just so synonymous with its troubled history. This film is Kenneth Branagh’s homage to his home town though so you might think he’d want to reclaim the place and show it as more than a location that for three decades famously suffered anger, discrimination, oppression, violence and bloodshed. Well, yes and no. Growing up in the late 60s, just as it was all starting, Branagh’s boyhood was somewhat defined by these things, so his autobiographical approach to the story means there’s no getting away from it. What he manages beautifully though is to show that, while the city was and is defined by all of this as well, this isn’t purely a bad thing. What we see here is that the troubles that Belfast experienced also gave the place a fortitude and a sense of love and community that it can celebrate. Belfast is not Berlin, it doesn’t live with guilt from its past, it owns the mistakes that were made but is proud of the strength it showed. There is rioting, gunfire, destruction, threat and loss depicted in this movie then, yet ultimately it is an utterly delightful film.
The key to this is the focus on nine year old Buddy, Branagh’s proxy in the story. The director’s memories and his narrative exist through the prism of childhood and this gives the film its sweet context. Kenneth Branagh wasn’t just any kid though, he was also a movie enthusiast, even at that stage, and so his memories and this narrative are framed in that too. As such, what we see on screen isn’t quite reality, rather it is a tinted view of events; naturalistic but innocently and fondly recalled, and filmically stylised.
What we get then is a series of episodes, neatly strung together into a nice story; some scenes domestic, some bucolic, some dramatic, some catastrophic and all cinematic. Mostly the familial and the political are kept apart but the moments when they do intertwine are among the best in the film, as when the mother takes her son right into the heart of a riot because she needs to teach him an important life lesson and no rampaging looters are going to get in the way of her duties as a parent. That’s brilliant, instinctive, no holes barred feminism in action right there.
The relationships are all well constructed, as you might expect with the director basing these on his own relations. The performances are all authentic too. The preteen Jude Hill is most definitely the star but Caitriona Balfe, Jamie Dornan, Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench all leave a great imprint as well. Look out also for ten year old Olive Tennent, following in the family business and starting out on her own journey toward being in Doctor Who at some point.
Being a black and white film, with a successful director replaying his own childhood in a particular cultural location, this is very reminiscent of Alfonso Cuarón’s Oscar winner Roma. It doesn’t have the simple honesty or emotional power of that film but it may still earn its own awards. In many respects Belfast is a gently charming film, which in itself is enough, but it manages this without shying away from the hard edges of its subject. In the end, what is great about Kenneth Branagh’s new film is that it absolutely recognises Belfast and Northern Ireland’s history but unlike movies such as Hunger, Fifty Dead Men Walking, I Am Belfast, ‘71 and In the Name of the Father (and even Patriot Games and The Devil’s Own) it recognises that this history it isn’t all dark. In this sense it does reclaim the city and it does so without sugar coating anything.
The Ripley Factor:
There are many ways of showing heroism; sometimes it is standing up against oppression, sometimes it is taking the lead when people underestimate you, sometimes it is battling aliens, sometimes it is stopping a war and sometimes it is killing monsters. Sometimes though, it is being a mum.