Combustible Celluloid
With: Jude Hill, Caitríona Balfe, Jamie Dornan, Judi Dench, Ciarán Hinds, Colin Morgan, Lara McDonnell, Gerard Horan, Conor MacNeill, Turlough Convery, Gerard McCarthy, Lewis McAskie, Olive Tennant, Victor Alli, Josie Walker
Written by: Kenneth Branagh
Directed by: Kenneth Branagh
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some violence and strong language
Running Time: 97
Date: 11/12/2021

Belfast (2021)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Irish Eyes

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

How wonderful to see Kenneth Branagh, after a topsy-turvy career, re-charge his batteries with something as personal and as touching as Belfast, his 18th film as director. Based, somewhat, on Branagh's childhood, the film takes place in Ireland, in 1969 during the Troubles, when disagreements Protestants and Catholics turned into violence in the streets. Our main character is 9-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill, in a remarkable juvenile performance), who lives on a street where everyone knows everyone, and loves dueling the other kids with his play sword and shield. Without warning, around the corner comes an angry mob of Protestants (who wish for Ireland to remain with the UK), ready to smash the windows of Catholic homes. A woman rushes to his rescue, wielding his garbage-pail lid to ward of flying stones.

Buddy's father (Jamie Dornan) works in England and can only come home once every two weeks for the weekend. He leans toward moving there, permanently, so that the family can be safe, and the stakes are raised when a good-paying job comes up. Buddy's mother (Caitríona Balfe) doesn't want to leave their neighborhood, which is its own mini-community, for a new place where they will be treated as outsiders. Buddy is also very much against leaving; he bursts out into tears at the very mention. He also doesn't want to leave his beloved grandparents, grumpy Gran (Judi Dench), and wise, funny old grandpa (Ciarán Hinds).

While Belfast does contain charged, brutal images of rage and hate — mirroring today's sociopolitical divide — it's largely from Buddy's point of view, and full of many delightful moments of innocence and hope. After a full-color opening, depicting images of Belfast, Branagh gracefully switches to black-and-white, which is appropriate, given Buddy's point of view is, metaphorically, black and white. He sees things as good or bad. When an older girl gives forces him to perform an initiation to join her "gang," he steals a candy from a candy shop, and he's visibly sick from guilt and remorse.

Things get more confusing when Buddy goes to church. His preacher rants about the horrors of hell his eyes gleam darkly and spittle flies. Buddy knows that, of two paths, one is right and the other is wrong, but he can't tell which is which. This stuff, however, Branagh plays with a lighter, almost comic touch. Aside from the opening attack, and a few other hints of violence, he saves his darkest moments for conversations between Buddy's parents, who argue about not only their living situation, but their financial situation. Yet there's no sign of abuse. This is a loving relationship, as juxtaposed by the many moments of joy. (There's even an impossibly magical Christmas sequence.)

Belfast might be a coming of age film to compare with Truffaut's The 400 Blows, except that it lacks Truffaut's cruelty, the uncaring, unfair way that life can treat a kid. But its optimism, and its uncertainty over its soul-crushing choice, have a power of their own. Where it falters, at least for me, is in the soundtrack of Van Morrison songs. Morrison is from Belfast, and would have been about 24 at the time this story takes place — and certainly his masterpiece Astral Weeks was out — although he left Ireland before the Troubles began. But when I hear Morrison's music, it conjures up images of hippies and flowers and fringes in the 1970s, and, to me, the songs never seemed to fit.

Perhaps deeper, and more troubling, is the fact that Morrison has recently claimed that COVID-19 is a hoax and has railed against safety protocols. He has even recorded protest songs to this effect. As of this week, Northern Ireland's health minister Robin Swann has sued Morrison (although exactly for what is unclear as of yet). The debate about art versus artists is still going, and is not easily solved, but for what it's worth, the songs rubbed me the wrong way each time one popped up. (Branagh said in an interview with the New York Times, "I have not understood or followed particularly what Van has spoken about in this regard. He is entirely and utterly an artist, and he has his particular unique Celtic brand of it, including a sort of inbuilt defiance of convention, independence of mind. With such passion also comes, inevitably, strong opinions and a very particular and in his case ever-changing personality. But I found him, as an artistic ally, a real mensch. That was my direct experience and the one that I can best talk about, and it was excellent.")

Branagh also said, in the same interview, "This way of trying to understand the world, which I encountered back there in that particular area of tribalism in Belfast — you're with us or you're against us — it seems to me allows for little of the humanity that appears in the gaps between those harshly drawn lines. In those gaps all sorts of human behavior occurs. Sometimes irresponsible behavior and sometimes heroic behavior." Perhaps this is the real power of Belfast, its deep compassion. It never tries to paint any of the fighters as villains, just as misguided. Its final notes reveal that Branagh is still struggling with something as simple, but as powerful, and as universal as a hard choice.

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