Kenneth Branagh renders his youthful memories in black and white.
One Irish woman jokes to another during Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast that Irish people were born for leaving, because otherwise the world would have no pubs. “All the Irish need to survive,” she continues, “is a phone, a pint, and the sheet music to ‘Danny Boy’” — key ingredients for a long evening of sentimental longing for the ones you’ve left behind, or maybe the ones who left.
By those standards, Belfast is a very, very, very Irish movie. There are pints, phones, and an off-key rendition of “Danny Boy,” plus a lot of Van Morrison and dancing. But most of all, there’s Branagh’s misty-eyed and mostly successful nostalgia. It’s become a lazy critical cliché to declare that a film is a love letter to a city or to the past or to cinema, but in this case it’s inescapable, and Belfast succeeds in passing that love along to us.
That’s a testament to the depth of feeling with which Branagh infuses the film, shot almost entirely in black and white. Though set at the start of the Troubles, the 30-year period of often violent ethno-nationalist conflict often characterized as a religious confrontation in Northern Ireland, Belfast assiduously avoids taking sides. This is not a political movie. The focus remains trained on a family making a monumental decision and the community around them — just like Branagh’s family did when he was a boy.
Branagh’s stand-in is a 9-year-old boy named Buddy (Jude Hill), who lives with his Pa and Ma (Jamie Dornan and Caitríona Balfe) and older brother Will (Lewis McAskie) on a working-class street in Belfast. Pa works as a joiner in England, but comes home every few weekends; his parents (Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench) live nearby, as do many cousins and neighbors. From the shopkeepers to the housewives to the men down at the pub, they’ve all known each other all their lives. They’re all, in essence, family.
But it’s 1969, and trouble is on the horizon. One day, as Buddy and the other children are playing on the street, Protestant loyalists show up and begin violently targeting the homes and shops of Catholics with bricks and bombs. It’s terrifying, and it’s just the beginning. A makeshift barricade constructed at the base of the street serves as a checkpoint, and adults worry to one another about what is happening to their home.
Buddy and his family, like many on the street, are Protestants. But they have many Catholic friends, people they’ve known their whole lives, and for the most part, the neighbors resent the intrusion.
And of course, Buddy is 9. Politics and unrest are interesting only insofar as they intrude onto the normal activities of life, like catching the attention of the prettiest girl in class or learning strategies to get partial credit on his math homework from his grandfather. Yes, Buddy and his brother get strict instructions from Pa not to run any errands or perform any tasks that the loyalists ask them to do. They discuss with their cousins how you know if someone’s a Catholic or a Protestant, and they complain about having to go to church. But they’re much more excited about watching The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance on TV or Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at the theater than whatever’s going on in the news; when the unrest does appear on the small household TV, it’s only the adults who pay attention.
By focusing on Buddy’s memories — which are his own memories — Branagh aims to do what his characters want: to focus on one another and their community, rather than on basically unwinnable political fights. Branagh (and Buddy) use the common shorthand of talking about it as a religious conflict, between Protestants and Catholics, but the reality was much more profound, stemming from historical and cultural discord that runs very deep in the country. Nationalists, who saw themselves as independent Irish (and Catholic), and Unionists, who saw themselves as part of the United Kingdom (and Protestant), went to war with one another not over theological differences but over conflicts in how they saw their identity as Irish people and long-running hostility stemming from British rule of Ireland.
The Troubles went on for 30 years, until the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Thousands of people died in those decades. But political agreements can’t entirely dispel old disputes and grudges. Periodic low-simmering incidents since then show that those sentiments are still alive and well. And problems created by Brexit have reignited the violence once again.
Yet people have to keep living. Belfast’s framing, from the perspective of a child, lets Branagh mostly brush past the politics. He focuses instead on his (admittedly incredibly beautiful) parents, his loving grandparents, the conversations he overheard and only half understood. The portrait of Buddy’s street we get from the film feels kind of obviously smoothed over, the rough corners rubbed off in memory. Belfast is mostly a happy film, and sometimes a bittersweet one, and only occasionally a truly tense one. It’s at its best in those joyful moments.
Is that good? Depends on your perspective. There’s an argument to be made that Belfast, coming out in 2021, ought to be bold, take a stance, draw a line from 1969 to today. It’s a little frustrating to watch the movie and know that by sidestepping politics, it probably substantially increased its chances during a crowded awards season.
Then again, the cardinal rule of evaluating a movie is to start not with what you wish it was, but what it actually is, and whether it’s good at being that thing. Belfast is not a film with a message about politics, but about home and family and where you find both. (Small wonder that Branagh, who left Ireland when he was 9, moving with his family to Reading, England, found himself writing the film in just eight weeks while on lockdown in London.) And the skill behind it beguiles and charms, much as a good story over a few pints at the pub might do. That kind of longing and love is all over Belfast, and right about now, it feels like catharsis.
Belfast opens in theaters on November 12.