A Film Review by Karen Kennelly-Fogarty
Belfast, Written and Directed by Kenneth Branagh; starring Judi Dench, Ciarán Hinds, Caitríona Balfe, Jamie Dornan and Jude Hill; music by Van Morrison. 2021.
Should I stay or should I go?
Kenneth Branagh’s family, like many before them, made the agonising decision to go, and it changed the course of his life. It is a story he has wanted to tell for the past 50 years; a silver lining of lockdown gave him the impetus and the time to do it. The result is a poignant love letter to his childhood in Belfast. Written and directed by Branagh, this touching story of lost innocence, with an outstanding cast and soundtrack by Van Morrison, has already won festival awards and is considered a major Oscar contender.
Branagh introduces us to present-day Belfast in vivid colour, soaring over the docklands and zooming in on new landmarks such as the Titanic Museum. The camera takes us over a wall and switches to black-and-white for the duration of the film. The date, boldly marked across the screen, is 15 August 1969. Buddy (newcomer Jude Hill), presumably a young Branagh, is shown surrounded, protected, loved, and known by everyone on his street as he is called home for dinner. The idyll is shattered when a petrol bomb is thrown, and rioters invade Buddy’s mixed (Protestant and Catholic) neighbourhood. The sudden violence is jarring and upsetting to watch. Buddy stands frozen as the camera swirls around him, clearly a pivotal moment in Branagh’s memory.
We are introduced to his family through the chaos and ordinariness of escalating violence. His father, Pa (Jamie Doran), who desperately wants a better life for his family, works in England and is home only each fortnight. His mother, Ma (Caitríona Balfe) is the typical, strong maternal force trying to keep everyone and everything together in ever-worsening conditions. He has an older brother Will (Lewis McAskie) and his beloved paternal grandparents portrayed beautifully by Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds. The film follows the family, mainly through Buddy’s eyes, as they struggle through this major upheaval to their lives.
Despite the tension inside and outside Buddy’s house, there is much joy and humour. Branagh stays well away from making this a political film. He uses Buddy’s innocence and attempts at understanding what is happening around him, to show the absurdity of being at war with people who are indistinguishable from himself. In an amusing scene, his older cousin tries to explain how you know what side people are on by their first name. Buddy frustrates her by finding neutral examples quickly.
Ten-year-old Jude Hill, making his film debut as Buddy, is exceptional. Every expression on his sweet face is genuine and withstands frequent close-ups. He is delightful to watch and was in safe hands with Branagh and his very talented and experienced castmates. His mother is played by Irish actress Caitríona Balfe, best known as the star of Outlander. She gives a powerful portrayal of a woman protecting her family. I wondered if Jamie Doran would redeem himself after his performance in the bizarre Wild Mountain Thyme, an American Irish film released in 2020 that was supposedly a rom-com. Actually being from Ireland didn’t make Doran’s Irish accent any better than the woeful attempts by the American cast. As one of the two main actors from Belfast, in the film Belfast, he does a much better job in comfortable territory, though he did have to give his natural accent a more working-class tone.
After Hill, for me, the stars were Judi Dench and Belfast native, Ciarán Hinds, as Buddy’s grandparents. Their chemistry was warm and compatible and their love for each other and Buddy was real. There was one close-up of Academy Award-winning, Dame Judi Dench’s 85-year-old face that was breathtaking. Perhaps it’s just surprising to see women’s faces that have been allowed to age, on-screen, but the effect, especially in black and white, was powerful. One of the few moments of colour in the film was a movie reflected in her glasses at the cinema when we learn how much she loved films as a young girl.
Going to the cinema was a favourite outing and escape for the family. Westerns on TV also feature prominently in the film as a device to decode the good guys and the bad guys in Buddy’s neighbourhood. His father is known as the Lone Ranger for refusing to give ‘cash or commitment’ to the men he calls gangsters. Much of the film has a stage-set feel to it, again placing it as a memoir more than gritty realism. Many scenes are framed through windows. ‘For now we see through a glass, darkly: but then face to face’ as the pastor quotes at a key moment. You feel you are looking in on these ordinary lives framed through memory, interposed with extreme close-ups of the characters’ faces and odd camera angles as if seeing the world through a child’s eyes. The total effect, especially as it is filmed in black-and-white, is very cinematic and nostalgic.
And there is plenty of nostalgia. Branagh lovingly recreates his 1960s working-class home, with plenty of Matchbox cars, Star Trek, and comics. What places it firmly in Belfast is the news footage playing on their early model television set.
Van Morrison, who grew up close to where the film is set, was 24 years old in 1969. ‘Astral Weeks’, his love letter to Belfast, was recorded the year before. Except for a couple of songs, the soundtrack to Belfast is all Van Morrison. His soulful music of love, loss, and renewal is a perfect fit by Branagh. The film closes on a note of hope with his classic, And The Healing Has Begun.
This is a very Irish film telling the universal story of immigration. It is said in the film that the Irish were born for leaving. Pa begs the family to consider a shiny new life overseas with glossy brochures of Toronto and Sydney. Ma’s response is practical and heartfelt, Sydney is 12,000 miles away and no one would have the money to visit. Perhaps watching this would convince the ‘go back to where you came from crowd’ that most refugees never wanted to leave in the first place.
I saw Belfast at the Palace Cinema Westgarth as part of their British Film Festival 2021 – films from the British Isles. It felt decadent to be actually in a cinema after endless nights of Netflix on my couch. The foyer was buzzing, the staff were charming, and the theatre was nearly full. Oh, the things we took for granted! Before the start was an introduction for film festival audiences from Kenneth Branagh himself. He thanked the audiences who were there because they have a passion for film that he shares and implored everyone to get back to cinemas. Watching Belfast was a wonderful way to oblige.
Karen Kennelly-Fogarty was born to Irish parents in America, but has called Australia home for the past 27 years. She is a convenor of Brigidfest.