by Dymphna Lonergan
Branagh’s Belfast is up for an Oscar. Karen Fogarty reviewed it in the December issue of Tinteán, and we thought our readers might enjoy a second and different take on this important film.
Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast is dedicated to ‘those who stayed, those who left, and those who were lost’. A 98-minute film cannot possibly do justice to all of these stories. Missing from this film are those who were lost, if we mean those who lost their lives during the Troubles in the 1960s. The film opens in colour with an aerial shot of present day Belfast. Then a banner headline takes us to 15 August 1969, and the colour changes to black and white. We see and hear a lot of violence in some opening scenes and later but not the harrowing bloody sights we saw on television during those times. Missing too is the background story of Northern Ireland that led to 15 August 1969, (in the opening scenes we see ‘Buddy’ caught up in the riots from that night).
Buddy (Jude Hill), his Mam and Dad, and his brother are representative of both those who stayed and those who left. This is a Protestant family. Dad (Jamie Doran) works in England and comes home every couple of weeks. His parents (played by Judy Dench and Ciarán Hines) live nearby, and grandad, ‘Pop’, is a kind, wise, funny male role model, much needed for the sweet, smart and curious Buddy with the absent father.
The previews of Belfast show a scene between granny (Judy Dench) and Buddy. She appears often in the film, but her character is overshadowed by Pop who conveys most of the words of wisdom about life to young Buddy, especially about women. Pop even gets to sing ‘How to Handle a Woman’ from Camelot to a coy Judy Dench. And he can recite Yeats. By contrast, Judy Dench seems to serve mainly as a box office draw card.
The reason Judy Dench is underused in this film is because Belfast is a film where males take centre stage and most females are in the wings. Branagh makes use of film footage from iconic westerns such as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and High Noon. When Dad arrives home, he is seen to be a ‘Steve McQueen’, the tune from The Great Escape whistled after him as he walks down the street. He got away to England. Van Morrison, the Belfast singer who also got away in the 1960s carries the supporting musical message of escape from the mundanities of life with ‘The Bright Side of the Road’, ‘Days Like This’, and ‘Carrickfergus’.
By contrast, the women must stay at home, in the same street and look after the family. We don’t see them in any other setting. Judy Dench’s character doesn’t get away in her lifetime. She never gets to visit a Shangri-La. Buddy’s Mam (Catriona Balfe) is too frightened to consider taking her children to a safer place even if it means being with her husband. If they ‘go over the water’ they will go away from all that they know, especially the relatives and neighbours who know them, protect them, and always understand their accents. But there is one glimpse of an independent and bold female. Buddy’s friend Moira (played by Lara McDonnell) teaches him some useful survival skills, but also leads him into petty crime.
The film is at its best when we follow young Buddy as he navigates the grown-up world. Through his experiences we glimpse the apparent contradictions in adult life that is intent on perpetuating difference. Your religion can be identified by the name you go by, but not always. If he is stopped and asked what his religion is, he must not opt for the safe bet of saying he’s a Catholic. That is what is expected. He should say he is a Protestant. ‘But I am a Protestant’ he retorts in confusion. Then there’s the problem of when trying to be smarter than smart in school is too smart, and your plan to be closer to the vision with the long blonde hair backfires. Buddy moves up higher in the class but further away from the girl he fancies. A trip to the movies with Dad can be family friendly with Chitty Chitty Bang Bang but also somewhat disturbing with One Million Years BC and a fur-bikini-clad Raquel Welch. Not all adults can be trusted all of the time.
Branagh does well to keep the plot moving along, and while there are moments of artifice, and at times a sense of a bird that is still looking for lift, what stands out in Belfast are the cast of characters who are honest and true and real.
Dymphna Lonergan is a member of the Tinteán editorial group