Friday November 19, 2021
Movie Review: Belfast (2021)
“My ma says if we went across the water, they wouldn’t understand the way we talk,” says Buddy, age 9, to his grandfather, Pa (Ciaran Hinds), halfway through “Belfast,” Kenneth Branagh’s short, feel-good memoir about The Troubles.
Buddy’s ma ain’t wrong. I think I missed about 20% of what was said in the film. So it’s a bit unfair for me to even write this review.
At the same time, it was my first Seattle theater experience since the pandemic began so it feels like something that should be celebrated. Even if I don’t celebrate everything in it.
And it stoned me
I’d heard good things about “Belfast” (Best Film at the Toronto International Film Festival, etc.), as well as not-so-good things (critics complained it wasn’t all that), and, shocker, I’m closer to the critics on this one. The movie is filmed in luminescent black and white, we get some nice Irish gallows humor, and everyone knows I’m a sucker for a coming-of-age story (“20th Century Women”), particularly if it’s against a backdrop of tragedy (“Hope and Glory”). Plus Branagh and I are almost contemporaries—he’s got three years on me—so this is the period of my own coming-of-age, too. Buddy reads “The Mighty Thor” and plays with Matchbox cars while I was more “The Amazing Spider-Man” and Hot Wheels, but it’s basically the same. Buddy watches “Star Trek” and goes to see “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” and I did and did.
“Belfast” begins the day The Troubles began in August 1969. Buddy (Jude Hill) is playing medieval war with trash-can lid and wooden sword when his drop-dead sexy mom (Caitríona Balfe) calls him home. He goes cheerily, interacting with almost everyone in his tight little Belfast neighborhood; and then as the camera spins around him several times, his worldview is upended. Riots break out at the end of the street, spill into his, and he has to be rescued by his mother. His pretend shield, the trash-can lid, is used deflect actual rocks being thrown at them. Nice touch.
Buddy’s family is Protestant, the neighborhood is cordoned off with sandbags, and folks have to show papers to the poor neighborhood watchman, whom most ignore. There’s a local troublemaker, Billy Clanton (Colin Morgan), who wants Buddy’s impossibly good-looking father (Jamie Dornan of “50 Shades”) to pick a side; and even though Clanton seems like not much, everyone lets him stalk around and make noise. The impossibly good-looking father, meanwhile, is rarely around. Working elsewhere, he returns on weekends. I thought he was having an affair but it’s not that. He also owe back taxes. I was never quite sure what that was about.
Despite the advent of civil war, most of Buddy’s life is: mooning after a blonde girl in his class (Catholic); listening to the wisdom of Grandpa and Granny (Judi Dench); and eavesdropping on his parents as they plan, or argue about, their future. He’s got an older female cousin, Moira (Lara McDonnell), who involves him in her own troubles—shoplifting from the local Indian-owned drug store, for example—and he has the quietest, most nondescript older brother in cinematic history. Sorry, Will (Lewis McAskie).
Eventually the impossibly good-looking dad secures a good job in England so they can get out. Except Ma, a Belfast girl, doesn’t want to go. Eventually she realizes it’s a good idea—kids the age of Will and Buddy are dying, her husband tells her—except then Buddy doesn’t want to go. He wails about it at Christmastime. For some reason, he’s listened to. (The movie has a lot of For some reasons
Over the next few months of inaction, Grandpa dies, the blonde girl kinda likes Buddy back, and in the movie’s climactic moment, cousin Moira involves Buddy in an actual riot of a grocery store, led by Billy Clanton. Terrified, Buddy steals one item: a box of chocolate cereal. For some reason, Ma decides he needs to return it that instant when the grocery store is still the center of a riot. Then, for some reason, Billy Clanton decides to hold her, Buddy and Moira hostage, and for some reason he has to face off against Buddy’s dad in their neighborhood street. And for some truly, truly awful reason, Branagh overlays the scene of Pa’s triumph (he throws a rock that knocks the gun out of Billy Clanton’s hand) with Tex Ritter singing “Do Not Forsake Me,” from the film “High Noon,” which Buddy had watched earlier on TV.
After this, the family finally gets out of Dodge, and the movie ends with dedications to those who left, those who stayed, those who didn’t live to see the brand new day.
Brand new day
“Belfast” works if you consider the fact that it’s told from a child’s point of view. I.e., my parents are movie stars, my father is a western hero, the neighborhood bully is one-note. Here’s the problem with that. Most movies, certainly most Hollywood movies, are all but told from a child’s point of view. They are absolutist in nature: good guys vs. bad guys, and the good guys win. We go to movies like “Belfast” for something deeper. Branagh didn’t give it. Hell, Thanos is a deeper villain than Billy Clanton. And I really could’ve done without the “Everlasting Love” scene.
Still, the movie looked gorgeous, it was great hearing a lot of Van Morrison, and I loved being back in an actual movie theater—SIFF Egyptian, Seattle—after our own version of the troubles. Which, sadly, aren’t nowhere near over.