Film Review: ‘Belfast’

by Koom Kankesan


Belfast is a black and white film written and directed by Kenneth Branagh. Told through the eyes of nine year old Buddy during the onset of The Troubles in the late sixties, it whimsically and humourously looks back on a working class childhood lived in the shadow of encroaching sectarian tensions. Recommended.

Belfast, the film written and directed by Kenneth Branagh, is told from the viewpoint of a nine year old working class Protestant boy living in the titular city just as ‘The Troubles’ begin in 1969. As such, the film can be seen as autobiographical in some respects as Branagh himself also came from a working class Protestant family in Belfast that fled to England when ‘The Troubles’ began around 1969. The name of the boy in the film is Buddy (Jude Hill), a bright eyed, cheery, spirited lad who does not understand the full implications of the developments around him, and this makes for a somewhat lighthearted look at the topic in between the bouts of sectarian tension.

If Buddy could have his way, he’d continue living his life where Catholics and Protestants mingle and the foremost sources of tension in his life are how to get classmate Catherine (Olive Tennant, daughter of David Tennant!) to like him back and find a way to get his father (Jamie Dornan) to take him to the movies. Buddy’s father is a joiner who has to travel to England to work and only gets to visit his family every few weeks. When his father visits, he’s constantly accosted by Billy Clanton (Colin Morgan) who tries to exert pressure and press gang Buddy’s father into joining the Protestant faction. This is not a place and time where a person can be allowed to remain neutral. Therefore, Buddy’s father attempts to persuade his headstrong wife (Caitriona Balfe) to pack up the boys and move with him to England where he can move up in his trade and protect his family from the violence which threatens to consume their lives. Buddy’s mother, who reminds him that they’ve lived there all their lives and that they will be mocked as foreigners in England, is very resistant to breaking away from their roots and all the people they’ve grown up with in order to begin life anew on alien turf.

The question of whether to stay or whether to go becomes the central concern in Belfast. Amidst the poverty and working class concerns, there’s a great deal of fun to be had. Some of this comes in the form of playing in the streets with garbage can lids for shields, and fantasizing. Other episodes arrive in the form of working class escapades such as when an older girl press gangs Buddy into joining her in stealing from a local convenience store. Buddy doesn’t really wish to join in and of course, in Buddy’s microcosm, it’s an analogy for the way his father is pressured into joining the Protestant faction as battle lines are literally erected at the end of their street. When a policeman comes to talk to Buddy’s mom about the shoplifting later, Buddy sits anxiously in the corner, sweating. What’s particularly powerful is how the shoplifting scene is tied to another scene later in the film where the same girl now presses Buddy into joining an actual mob (he’s passed the test and is now part of their gang) that demolishes and raids a Catholic store. It reminds one of the climax in Do The Right Thing where the pizzeria is trashed. Buddy, not knowing what he’s doing, steals a box of laundry detergent only, after he takes it home, to have his mother march him right back to the store and force him to return it to the shelf. All the while, chaos ensues around them.

While the analogy between shoplifting and rioting is particularly effective, Buddy’s mom marching him back to impress a lesson isn’t believable. The film has a lighthearted and whimsical tone, aided by somewhat artificial sets and wide angled cinematography, to suit its protagonist even though there are much more sombre happenings in the background. These two tones don’t always mesh. When the matter of economics is handled more lightly and more personally in relation to the family’s lives (there’s a particularly great moment where Buddy is about to answer the door as the rent man calls and his mom pulls him away to hide and pretend they’re not home), the film sings. Buddy’s grandfather (Ciaran Hinds) tells a humourous tale where they used to allow the rent man to collect rent every month from everyone on the street, and then someone would stick up the rent collector and give the proceeds back to the families, taking a small cut for his work. As his grandfather tells it, they later cut the rent man into the scheme as well – a much more civilized way of dealing with disaffection.

Working with excellent actors (you can’t go wrong with Ciaran Hinds and Judi Dench as grandparents), and especially Balfe as the mom, this film is a very enjoyable crowd pleaser, a love letter to a time and place glimpsed through the nostalgia of childhood. The film is nominated for seven Oscars and will undoubtedly win something this weekend. Questions remain though after watching it: if the film is indeed autobiographical, why is our young protagonist besotted only with pulpy forms of escape – he longs for the westerns playing at the theatre such as High Noon and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, a seasonal stage performance of A Christmas Carol, and his comic books such as a copy of Thor that we see him reading – instead of the more classical fare that would exert such a formidable direction over Branagh’s life? Did he, all along, desire to do the likes of Harry Potter over Shakespeare?

Both Branagh and young Buddy leave Belfast relatively early during The Troubles so is it fair to appropriate that messy strife without actually reckoning with its politics? The film’s central drama wrestles with whether to leave or stay (the defining issue in any immigrant/refugee’s life) and the ties one feels for what one leaves behind. It can be simplistic to sweep generations of discord and politics under the rug and simply say that the tensions are meaningless because those that insist on sides are bad – why can’t we all just get along? Why shoot the film in the grave tones of black and white if the dominant flavour is a funnier, lighthearted one? I don’t have answers for any of these questions because they lie at the heart of Kenneth Branagh’s praxis as a dramaturge, and he is without doubt, a complicated man. At this time, he has yet another film out – the adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile which currently holds a score of 63% on Rotten Tomatoes. Branagh has played commercial roles such as the baddies in Wild Wild West and Tenet. At the same time, it’s impossible to not see him as Iago or Hamlet. Branagh might be castigating his Shakespearean roots to play whatever he’s dealt – at a certain point, it must be tempting to take the money and run. In any case, there’s plenty of wit and delight to go around in Belfast and it’s definitely worth seeing, whatever its wins or losses this coming weekend.

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