“If they can’t understand ya, then they’re not listening. And that’s their problem.”
There’s something about an autobiographical drama film that tends to result in a more charged emotional connection to its audience. The depth of feeling and the memories which have been accessed to drive the narrative mean so much more to the director and the cast; and depending on who is watching, to the audience as well.
Belfast follows the story of Buddy (Jude Hill), a 9 year old second son of a Protestant family in Belfast, as he and his family attempt to navigate love and life against the backdrop of the growing violence within the city. Written and directed by Kenneth Branagh, heavily drawing on his own experiences as a child in Belfast in 1969, we see how life changes for those in Belfast as The Troubles begin.
While I’m a couple of decades younger than Kenneth Branagh, I found myself being quite personally taken by Belfast as a nostalgic piece of cinema. The perspective of an Irish childhood against a backdrop of violence was a more poignant setting than I had anticipated; and while Branagh (and as an extension Buddy) was 9 years old when The Troubles truly began; I was 9 years old when the Belfast Agreement was signed in 1997, essentially bringing the conflict to an end (in broad terms; though the impact of 30 years of conflict would continue in isolated pockets essentially in perpetuity). I note this now because, while I always intend to begin the review process from a position of impartiality; I am happy to tell you that I walked out of Toronto’s Fox Theatre after watching this film and burst into tears; tears fuelled not only by what was an excellent story in a wonderful film, but also due to a lightning bolt of personal nostalgia and an unexpectedly overwhelming wave of homesickness – an emotional response which is a testament to the emotional depth that Branagh has brought to Belfast, through everything from the script to the direction.
While it’s integral to the narrative as a whole, the conflict is not the central story thread of Belfast, this is a film about family life at its core. Buddy lives on a street where everybody knows his name; a street where his neighbours are more than just his friends, but also include his schoolmates, his cousins and extended family, and a tight community that looks out for each other every day. This is demonstrated in the opening few minutes of the film, before his world is flipped upside down by a Protestant/Loyalist mob, who swarm the street and target the houses occupied by Catholics for acts of violence and destruction. Herein lies one of the film’s only flaws, in that the conflict is expressly framed by the characters as being between Protestants and Catholics without any allusion to a more political divide as opposed to a religious one; and while it makes sense within the framing of the world from the point of view of a 9 year old boy, it perhaps would have been beneficial to the wider world, who may be less familiar with the complex sociopolitical landscape that was the true cause of the violence, but that assessment is coming from someone who has spent more time reading on the deeper background of the period and may be a little much to ask from such a deeply personal film. I feel it also important to note that Buddy’s family holds a neutral stance on the conflict, and that viewpoint is expressed repeatedly through the words and actions of all the characters central to Buddy’s family life; Branagh works hard to make it clear that his family did not contribute to the conflict on either side.
Jude Hill’s cinematic debut is an impressive one, and he is very convincing as Buddy. It’s a demanding piece for a young actor, as he is actively present in nearly every scene – given that he is our point of view character, he has to be nearby even for scenes he is not actively involved in, or else the audience couldn’t be present either. Impressive as his performance is, the rest of the cast playing his family put in a strong showing as well. Jamie Dornan is on hand as Pa, in a role which is possibly his most powerful cinematic performance of his career so far (and it’s a travesty that he hasn’t had more award nominations for this role); and he has excellent chemistry with Caitriona Balfe, who plays Ma. Ciaran Hinds gets a rare opportunity to act with his own accent as Buddy’s wise and mischievous grandfather Pops, and Dame Judi Dench is Granny; giving an emotional and driven performance, though her accent is just shy of convincing for those with a good ear for accents from the North – but I imagine most watchers won’t be able to tell for the most part. Lewis McAskie has a reduced role as Buddy’s brother Will, but still makes a strong showing when on screen; and Olive Tennant has a charming debut as Buddy’s young love interest Catherine, and shows potential to take after her parents in terms of acting ability.
There’s more to be said about the performances, but it’s hard to pinpoint the true highs without discussing the relevant scenes at length, which I want to avoid (as always). I will say that Dornan and Balfe do great work in portraying the parents in a family who are struggling with more than just the difficulties caused by the growing violence; with strains being placed on their relationship due to Pa’s work situation and financial difficulties stretching into the history of their relationship. Dornan’s performance is one of strength and compassion; an embattled man who wants to find the best possible life for his family, even if the cost includes leaving his home. Balfe’s performance is similar, but with room for a level of frustration reserved only for a wife and mother who is, due to the exceptional circumstances of her family unit, essentially working to raise two children on her own for the majority of the time.
The true heart of Belfast lies within its story and its direction, all of which falls firmly on the shoulders of Branagh. This film is not just a memory of a childhood past, but it’s a love letter to the experiences of a child living in conflict; with games of football, trips to the park, the cinema and the theatre; all lovingly brought to life and tremendously staged, with the cinema and theatre trips in particular standing apart in full colour, contrasting with the black and white of the film’s personal action. I’ve seen Belfast referred to as a “Coming Of Age” film, but I can’t find myself agreeing with that. Coming of age cinema suggests to me the transition from childhood to adulthood; a film centred around teenagers figuring out their place in the world, and I would say that Belfast is the opposite of that. Branagh introduces Buddy to us as a child who knows and understands his place in the world; though his world is small and mostly contained to his street and his school; and by the end, Buddy is still a child who now realises that he doesn’t know where he fits in, as the conflict and the changes to his family-life pull him out of the place he knew so well and launch him into the unknown. All of this is supplemented by the fact this film is semi-autobiographical, and that Buddy’s story is not written from an independent viewpoint; Branagh is a biased author, and we see that reflected in the way certain scenarios are played out, often reflecting staging and tropes that connect to pieces of popular culture that we see Buddy himself enjoying. The climactic moment at the end of the third act, for example, is effectively staged like a high noon showdown in a spaghetti western, similar to one we see Buddy watching much earlier on in the film, but with the added historical context of sectarian violence and swarms of riot police; and it’s little touches like that which allow Branagh to not only reflect his deep love of cinema, but also to pay tribute to his own family for their actions during his life, as played out on screen.
Belfast is a triumph, a powerful drama about the struggles of family life with an unconventional backdrop of historical conflict which sets it apart from many films that would be comparable in style. Featuring some impressive debuts in central roles, and some powerful performances from more familiar, established actors; Branagh has clearly poured a lot of heart and soul into this piece. If you’re a member of the diaspora of the North then this is essential viewing; for everyone else, this is certainly one to watch, and deserves to be seen in the cinema if it’s safe and possible. Expect more awards.