Saturday 5 March 2022

Movie Review: Belfast (2021)

A coming of age drama with sparks of humour, Belfast is a child's view of The Troubles in Northern Ireland, but more profoundly a lyrical reflection on a family's warmth and sense of belonging.

In 1969, nine-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill) is living with his Protestant family in a mixed Belfast neighbourhood. Their street is attacked by a Protestant mob eager to evict Catholic families. But the neighbours want no part of the religious conflict and erect makeshift barricades to dissuade troublemakers. British troops move into the area, adding tension to the streetscape. At school, Buddy has a crush on his classmate Catherine, and gets advice on love and academics from his grandfather Pop (Ciaran Hinds), who is still very much in love with Granny (Judi Dench). 

Buddy witnesses The Troubles adding strain on his parents Ma (Caitriona Balfe), who holds the house together, and Pa (Jamie Dornan) who is often away at work sites in England. Pa is convinced the family should relocate to get away from the threat of violence, but Ma believes Belfast is home and her family would be unwelcome strangers anywhere else. Local troublemaker Billy Clanton (Colin Morgan) ups the pressure on Pa to support the Protestant cause, while Buddy gets dragged into a shop-lifting escapade and then a more serious rioting incident.

Written and directed by Kenneth Branagh, Belfast is a semi-autobiographical recollection of childhood, similar in style and tenderness to John Boorman's Hope and Glory and Alfonso CuarĂ³n's Roma. Here The Troubles create a backdrop and an influence but without dominating young Buddy's life. Branagh cuts through externalities to arrive at what matters most to a child: the home environment and the tone set by parents.

Firmly entrenched in middle class, Ma and Pa are having troubles of their own. The spectre of financial pain related to unpaid back-taxes hangs over the household. Pa is frequently away for weeks at a time, and his perspective from outside Belfast allows him to better understand Northern Ireland's grim prospects. His resolve to leave hardens with exotic Vancouver and Sydney joining England as prospective destinations. Ma's entire life is invested in Belfast, and these faraway places may as well be on the moon.

The idea of uprooting can be traumatic, but children are also resilient, and Branagh captures the multiple concerns of a busy child's life. As the debate between Pa and Ma gains an edge, it's not so much the topic that worries Buddy: just the fact that all is not well between his parents is a source of anxiety. Pop and Granny are always ready with the soothing balm of wisdom, and Buddy's other concerns include winning the attention of cute and brainy classmate Catherine and deciding whether or not to start participating in street-level mischief.

Through it well, Buddy catches film snippets on television, and the local movie theatre is the most exciting family outing. The child's nascent and wide-eyed love of the movies trickles all the way down from Granny, who anyway can't stop talking in the theatre. Branagh uses black and white cinematography to evoke the past, with just a few splashes of colour as exclamation points. The framing is often exquisite: almost every scene is meticulously constructed to emphasize symmetry or perspective, underlining Buddy's unique lens. 

The performances are uniformly good without being flashy. Caitriona Balfe is quietly effective in demonstrating the enormous impact of a steadfast mother, and Ciaran Hinds establishes Pop as a memorably caring presence. The film rotates around Buddy, and Branagh ensures Jude Hill is simply endearing. Finally here is a child who is a child, curious, awkward, observant, and astute, but never precocious or mouthy.

The film's most poignant moments radiate love. The crusty spark between Pop and Granny remains in evidence, but the displays of romance between Ma and Pa, when they stop bickering and pause to appreciate each other and rekindle passion, are simply sublime. The Troubles may be a dark cloud in the Belfast sky, but a family's rock solid parental foundation is eternal.

All Ace Black Movie Blog reviews are here.

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