One of the movies doing the rounds with distinction this awards season (2022) is Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast, a semi-autobiographical ode to his home city of the title. It’s a lovely little homage which also pays tribute to the Troubles which plagued Northern Ireland of the time and the people who suffered or left their beloved homes because of the constant strife. As with any great movie set in a storied city, the emotions of associating a place with a loved or troubled time cuts across time and boundaries and appeals to all of us who relate to lost time and beloved places. In short, you don’t really need to know anything about Belfast beforehand to fall in love with this little gem.
The movie opens up innocuously enough, with some pretty montages in color after which everything shifts to black and white to show a seemingly friendly street where the kids play in everyone’s gardens and neighbors look out for each other. We are introduced to young Buddy, played brilliantly by newcomer Jude Hill, as he is beckoned home by his Ma (an incredibly beautiful and heartfelt Caitríona Balfe) from his tiring day of play. It blows up, literally, in ours and his face quite suddenly as a bunch of Protestant thugs/gangsters sweep down the street in a fit of violence as they seek out Catholic homes to destroy. After the dust dies down, it is obvious that the families themselves harbor no such ill will towards each other as they think of ways to protect their Catholic neighbors. The story then narrows down to focus on the story of Buddy’s family, comprising his elder brother Will (Lewis McAskie), his Ma, his grandparents (Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds) and his Pa (Jamie Dornan), who is away most of the time in England on his job. While the Troubles are an ever present background to their lives, there are more pressing familial concerns to deal with. Pa is back on his taxes and has to pay it off, which Ma is taking care of while he is away. In a fit of misguided enterprise, after paying up she asks the government for confirmation, which results in them digging deeper and coming up with further back taxes which he has to pay. It’s one of many moments of tragicomedy in the film. Another has the young Buddy, in the midst of a riot and pulled into looting by his friend, Moira, in a fit of confusion on what to pick up from the wide array of options, picks up a packet of detergent and runs home only to be reprimanded by his mother and taken back to the scene of the crime, while riots continue, to put it back. While funny, it is also a reminder of a fact Ma keeps reminding Pa when he comes back on his breaks home, that it is tough to raise two boys to be upstanding young men in such times and on her own.
Soon, the question of leaving comes up. Should they seek greener pastures depicted in the brochures brought by Pa, talking of places like Australia and Canada, which seem like a whole planet away as far as they are concerned. Or should they take up the offer from Pa’s company to move to England? But what of Belfast and home? The streets which know their names, the streets where they grew up and where their families and friends like families are. While Pa is more inclined towards leaving, Ma can’t help thinking of all that she will have to give up to leave her beloved city. But the threat of impending menace hovers over their home. Buddy is confused initially but his wide-eyed innocence starts to take in all the changes that are happening around him and which can happen. It’s a beautiful coming of age story from that respect and Jude Hill is a remarkable young talent. His expressions and actions are so believably perfect that we live the difficult period of adolescence in a troubled city through him. Judi Dench, Ciarán Hinds and Jamie Dornan too are empathetically good in their roles, while, as already mentioned, Caitríona Balfe is brilliant.
The technical aspects of the film are great too. It is peppered with some lovely soundtracks which fit the mood of the story. The cinematography is beautiful in its black and white frames, with quite a few worth freeze-framing into posterity. The same can be said in general about the movie as a whole. This one’s a keeper.