NO MATTER HOW FAR YOU GO, YOU NEVER FORGET WHERE YOU CAME FROM.
In 2011, Kenneth Branagh returned to Belfast for the first time since 1969, when he and his family left the city to escape sectarian violence. It must have been an emotional experience, even if the streets where he grew up no longer existed. The story of his childhood was perfect fodder for a film and a personal attempt to reconcile with his past, something he felt needed to be done. After all, most people viewed him as a classically English Shakespearean actor and director and didn’t realize he was actually from Northern Ireland; his accent disappeared at an early stage. A decade after that visit to Belfast, Branagh finally made his movie, and it’s his best in many years.
Riots breaking out in August
In 1969, nine-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill) is growing up in a Protestant community in Belfast. There are Catholic businesses on his street, but his family and neighbors haven’t really cared about religious differences. When riots break out that August, it becomes the start of the Troubles. Barricades are erected and thugs see their chance to take power in the streets. A criminal called Billy Clanton (Colin Morgan) demands loyalty and sacrifice from every Protestant breadwinner in the street, including Buddy’s dad (Jamie Dornan) who has no interest in aiding Clanton.
As tensions rise, the family considers leaving Belfast, but this is Buddy’s home, where he has his beloved grandparents (Judi Dench, Ciarán Hinds) and where he’s falling in love with a pretty girl…
An idealized vision
The opening of the film may not be to everybody’s taste. After shots of contemporary Belfast in color, Branagh turns back the clock to 1969 and presents an idealized vision, in black-and-white, of the street where his family lived, one where people are happy and safe until suddenly, out of nowhere, everything just blows up. There are other scenes and instances that look less than realistic, for instance the fact that every character except for the extremists, like Clanton, seem to believe that religion doesn’t matter and that Protestants and Catholics are equal. If common people on both sides genuinely felt that way during the Troubles there would be no reason for the conflict. In other words, a part of Branagh looks at his past through rose-colored glasses, ignoring the religious hatred among people. Then again, the whole reason why Branagh’s family, and the characters in this film, had to leave Belfast was because of the violence; it isn’t hidden from us.
Branagh wasn’t the only one from Northern Ireland involved in the making of the film; there are others among the cast adding their experiences, and then there’s Van Morrison who was also born in Belfast and whose songs pop up frequently throughout the film, including a new one that was written for it. They are the soundtrack to Branagh’s childhood and accompany the film’s most charming moments, because even if this is a movie about how the Troubles tormented one of many families, it’s also a heart-warming, amusing and nostalgic portrait of childhood and a boy’s relationship with his mom, dad and grandparents (all beautifully played by a sterling cast).
Buddy’s rich experiences from the cinema and the theater add color to the black-and-white cinematography, emphasizing Branagh’s impression of what it was like going to those venues; one is reminded of Roma (2018), even if Belfast is never equally impressive.
There is value in portraying Belfast not as a hellhole. We all know the grief caused by the Troubles. We all know the politics. Branagh offers something else, an artist’s memory of the place and the people. His positive approach is endearing.
Belfast 2022-Britain. 97 min. Color-B/W. Produced by Laura Berwick, Kenneth Branagh, Becca Kovacik, Tamar Thomas. Written and directed by Kenneth Branagh. Cinematography: Haris Zambarloukos. Song: ”Down to Joy” (Van Morrison). Cast: Jude Hill (Buddy), Caitriona Balfe (Ma), Jamie Dornan (Pa), Judi Dench, Ciarán Hinds, Lewis McAskie.
Oscar: Best Original Screenplay. Golden Globe: Best Screenplay. BAFTA: Best British Film.
Last word: “What [my parents] had was this incredible fizz, this passion between them. Since the film was made, I’ve come across a few photos of them in the late ’60s. My mother had a big pair of Gina Lollobrigida glasses – very sort of sexy trexy and glamorous. They didn’t have the money, but she definitely had an innate sense of style. And he was very proud of her sassiness. She was one of 11. Her mother died giving birth to her. To survive in that family, you had to shove, fight, and scream, so she was a firebrand. And, of course, those qualities in people often are very attractive. And Jamie’s dry sense of humor was bang in the center of my own father’s. But ultimately, even I didn’t know quite how photographically zingy the pair of them would be. My wife saw the film and said, ‘Jesus. Please photograph me like that.'” (Branagh, Vulture)