If, like either Kenneth Branagh or his cinematic counterpart Buddy, you spend your time studying and devouring cinema, you’ll instantly see the history of film in Belfast, the legendary director’s autobiography. You’ll see The 400 Blows, and How Green Was My Valley, and Hope and Glory, and beyond. Yet even if you aren’t cinematically literate, Belfast will still resonate with you on a core level. It is a simple story: one of family, and of the lessons of growing up, and of trying to raise a child in a world that’s seemingly falling apart. It is a film you feel, filled with laughs and love and pain. And it’s certainly one of the year’s best, a crowd-pleaser that so rarely exists anymore.
In 1969, nine-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill) lives an idyllic life in Belfast, Ireland. He lives at home with Ma (Caitriona Balfe) and his older brother Will (Lewis McAskie), just down the street from his Granny (Judi Dench) and Pop (Ciarán Hinds). His Pa (Jamie Dornan) works across the channel as a joiner, coming home every few weeks to visit. Buddy spends his days going to school, pining after bookworm Catherine (Olive Tennant), getting into mischief with his cousin Moira (Lara McDonnell), and going to the movies and dazzling at the visuals. However, Buddy’s youth provides him with a necessary naiveté: the only home he’s ever known is on the brink of war, with his Protestant and Catholic neighbors engaging in conflicts of escalating violence and terror. Soon Buddy’s parents are forced to make an impossible decision: stay in Belfast and risk the violence, or give their sons a fighting chance by leaving the only home they’ve ever known.
Before diving further into the review, a quick refresher course on the Troubles, for those not up to speed on their European history. Driven by a passion to secede from the U.K. and a series of civil rights violations by the ruling Protestant class, the Catholic population of Ireland began a series of protests. Centuries of resentment boiled over, resulting in roaming gangs of Protestants harassing and burning Catholic properties, which resulted in violent retaliation from the Catholics, who eventually formed the IRA and committed terrorist actions against the occupying British troops for two decades. Belfast occurs in the early days of that conflict, and it’s hard not to draw parallels to the modern era, where no one trusts anyone, oppressed people fight back at all costs, and it feels like the end of the world. After all, it’s hard to listen to lines like “There’s no our side and their side. Or there didn’t use to be, anyway” or “If the police aren’t going to protect us, we’re going to have to do it ourselves” and not think of the modern state of things.
Using this era as a backdrop speaks to the film’s general premise: a world crumbling from a child’s point of view, and the beauty inherent in that cock-eyed optimism. As adults, we understand what’s happening in the world around these characters. We understand why patrolmen wander the streets, and helicopters encircle the sky and floodlights diligently watch the alleys. We understand the historical conflicts between the “confessing Catholics” and “fire and brimstone Protestants.” Yet to Buddy, none of this matters. He still sees the world in black and white. He can’t understand why it’s an issue to love the knowledgeable Catholic girl sitting in front of him in school, or why roaming gangs are calling his father a traitor and eliciting none-too-subtle threats. Near the end of the film, Buddy’s minister quotes from Corinthians, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, thought like a child, reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.” Belfast seems to make the opposite argument: that one should never lose that childlike wonder, for that is where the world’s issues arise.
Of course, doing so would be easy with a family like Buddy’s, captured so earnestly, smartly, and relatably by Branagh. Setting aside the acting for a moment, Branagh’s script inherently understands both family dynamics and the way lessons while we’re young impact us when we’re grown. Ma and Pa are effortlessly beautiful, the way we view them when we’re a child. They seem to know all the right answers, lovingly dance in the street, and only ever fight about money issues and parenting styles when the kids are supposedly away. Ma keeps everything in order while Pa is away, often without the proper credit – she’s raising the boys, paying the rent, and beyond; oftentimes this involves massive amounts of cleverly written improvisation, like covering her child’s mouth to hide from tax collectors, or asking police officers to come scare a shoplifting son straight. Pa, meanwhile, is seen as an old-school action hero. He is shot from below, both to demonstrate the larger-than-life view we hold of our fathers as children and to emulate the Western heroes young Buddy emulates. His smirks and jokes tell us everything will be alright, even when we’re not sure it will be.
Branagh’s screenplay extends well beyond the immediate family. The writer/director understands every facet of family life. On a smaller scale, this includes cousin Moira, the mischievous older cousin filled with bad logic and an Eddie Haskell-esque sense of fun (the majority of which involve petty crimes). But this especially applies to the grandparents, filled with decades of wisdom and life experience, and a whole lotta love. Grandpa is around to crack jokes and explain how to woo a woman whilst singing Camelot to his wife of 50 years. He only lets his guard down through subtle asides, expressing sage wisdom through succinct honesty. During a humorous math lesson, Buddy corrects his grandfather that “There’s only one right answer!” Grandpa doesn’t hesitate in replying “If that were true, people wouldn’t be blowing themselves up.” And then there’s Grandma, around to sternly and loving look after her grandchildren. There’s a sadness behind her joviality, expressed to a young Buddy after a late-night show that “There were no roads to Shang-Ri-La from our parts of Belfast.” Yet while we the audience can see a sadness formed from an inability to escape and the destruction of her world around her, she would never dream of showing that to her grandson, filled with wonder and glee and hope.
Branagh matches his breezy, smart story with a masterful display of direction. It’s not a flashy, game-changing piece of work, but everything is executed so flawlessly, it almost feels like it is. Cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos films everything so brilliantly, both in the use of color and, primarily, the film’s use of black-and-white. To evoke the idea of traveling back in time, the film’s opening shots (all in color) explore the modern-day Belfast, before crossing the wall into history, and shifting to black-and-white. So much can be written about this color choice – its evocation of nostalgia, the fact that the world looks so simple and blunt when you’re a child, etc. The only time color seeps through into young Buddy’s world is when he’s taking in the arts – local plays are brightly lit in the young boy’s eyes, and reflected in Judi Dench’s glasses. The cinema appears Technicolor and larger than life as Raquel Welch comes sauntering in a fur bikini, or Dick van Dyke drives Chitty Chitty Bang Bang over a cliff. The world of storytelling is the only escape for young Buddy, and while it’s never outright stated, it’s pretty clear this boy will grow up to become an actor/director.
Equally essential to the film is editor Úna Ni Dhonghaile, who keeps the film brisk and smart as it treks along at a lightning pace to an all-too-brief 97-minute finale. Her work is so subtle you may not even realize the heavy lifting it’s doing, yet Dhonghaile’s is consistently the unsung hero, whether she’s shifting a tranquil childhood, both metaphorically and literally, into an explosion of violence, or crafting an in-joke with a well-placed hard cut. One of the deepest laughs in the movie comes in the first fifteen minutes, when young Buddy is told by his Protestant relatives that “Catholicism is a religion of fear” right before listening to his Protestant minister give a sweaty, screeching sermon on the likelihood of eternal damnation before begging for money. In fact, Dhonghaile’s editing and Branagh’s script work together so congruently, they single-handedly prevent the film’s lone action setpiece from ruining the movie – if it weren’t absolutely and emotionally thrilling in its own right, it might otherwise have ruined an otherwise-expertly crafted movie.
And one couldn’t get through a review of Belfast without discussing the music, consisting predominantly of the music of Belfast native Van Morrison. Now, say what you will about Morrison’s current…everything. His music is exactly what this film needs. Morrison’s voice is (was?) the voice of romance, of longing and nostalgia, and particularly of comfort. When he sings, it instills one with feelings of childhood and fond memories – exactly the tone this film is striving to achieve. Whether it’s “Wild Night” or “Jackie Wilson Says,” or any of the incidental music or original songs Morrison composed for the film, each piece is carefully selected based on story requirements and perfectly establishes a time and place in world history. There are only two songs not sung by Morrison, equally well-chosen. The first is the theme to High Noon, ironically utilized at the film’s climax – in the original film, the song stood for staying to defend your town from bad men as the heroic act; here, the heroic act is leaving your hometown to save your family. The second is a wake-performed rendition of “Everlasting Love,” which serves little purpose beyond establishing the family’s bond – and expertly so. Yet musically, this is Morrison’s film, a statement firmly established by the time the film reaches its emotional conclusion with the fitting song “The Healing Has Begun.”
The acting, as always, has been saved for last, but there is a reason to do so today. After all, the expression goes “Save the best for last.” And this is one of the best-assembled ensembles you’ll see all year. They aren’t often flashy, although everyone gets at least one big moment to shine. But they know their roles, live in their roles, and breathe their roles, so you shan’t forget them. Young Jude Hill gives an all-time great child actor performance, carrying the film on his wide-eyed excitement. You feel his plight firmly, whether it’s fear of the world around him, childish young love for the girl at the front of the class, or the wonder with which he devours pop culture. Hall’s young contemporaries aren’t given nearly the same amount of material, but they equally give it their all, whether it’s Olivia Tennant’s smiling girl-next-door, McAskie’s grown-up-beyond-his-years older brother, and especially Lara McDonnell’s naughty older cousin Moira (McDonnell, perhaps the lone saving grace in Branagh’s terrible Artemis Fowl, has successfully joined Branagh on his mea culpa tour).
Meanwhile, Dornan and Balfe give a master class in how to play the straight men in a film like this. Their roles are not as flashy as their counterparts – they aren’t wide-eyed kids like Hill, nor do they get sassy lines like the grandparents. They are here to be stern but fair, loving and complex, hiding their feelings whenever the children are about. Balfe radiates star energy from beginning to end, while Dornan uses every ounce of his charm, charisma, and parental presence to bring Pa to life – it helps that his eyes just radiate love and reflection. Speaking of the grandparents, both Dench and Hinds steal their handful of scenes together, as one would expect. Judi Dench is not doing much beyond playing Judi Dench, but when has that ever been a bad thing? Hinds, meanwhile, particularly moved me, as it appears he knows exactly how to play a grandfather. He somehow conjures memories of both my grandfathers at the same time, thanks to his ability to both impart sage advice and mischievous asides. Oh, and some time must be spent praising Turlough Convery as the fire-and-brimstone minister, who just has a ball with his fiery (and occasionally poignant) sermons.
Belfast is a heartfelt, winning film through and through. It is a film with a straightforward mission that it expertly and incisively accomplishes, no more and no less. It is history in a bottle, a parable about growing up in its wonder, terror, and idealism. Writing and directing your life story involves a slippery slope – one false step and you become cloying and self-aggrandizing. Yet Kenneth Branagh walks that tightrope carefully. He has crafted an homage to a specific time and specific place, to those who lost their lives, and to those who sacrificed to make him the man he is today. Through its specificities, it is a timeless tale of evergreen themes and scenarios. And audiences can and will fall in love with it, over and over, for years to come.
Belfast will premiere nationwide in theaters tomorrow, November 12th