in

Belfast

****
2021

‘…isn’t a perfect film, but is a genuine crowd-pleaser…’

For a brand-name creative, Kenneth Branagh’s post millennium output has been a miserable slate of reboots, rehashes and not-starters. From an anonymous Marvel spin-off (Thor) to a laboured Agatha Christie reboot (Murder on the Orient Express), there’s little to suggest any kind of auteur at work. At least these projects are better than product Artemis Fowl or Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. But against all odds, and this critic’s personal expectations, Branagh’s Belfast sees him get his mojo back. It may be sloppy and sentimental AF, but this black and white drama works like a charm, a memoir much in the vein of John Boorman’s Hope and Glory, and one which feels like a return to his 90’s form.

Belfast is a personal memoir of the sixties, 1969 seen through the eyes of a nine year old named Buddy (Jude Hill). Buddy’s Ma (Caitriona Balfe) and Da (Jamie Dornan) are Irish Protestants living in a largely Catholic street, and get caught in the crossfire as the Troubles emerge, pitting family against family on religious lines. Of course, Buddy is more interested in old movies on tv or new fangled concepts like cinema release Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and the conflicts are seen simplified through his wide eyes in a stark, Bill Douglas-lite style. In a balanced subplot, we see Buddy’s enduring affection for his elderly grandparents, played in salty support turns by Ciaran Hinds and Judi Dench.

Branagh does well with the religious intolerance of the time, treated in a simplistic but still effective way. But Hinds and Dench absolutely steal the show, giving the film a genuine heart and soul that makes for a true feel-good ending, with a dynamic night-club dance scene set to Love Affair’s anthem Everlasting Love certain to raise the spirits and bring a tear to the eye. Branagh’s other tricks, a colour picture postcard opening of Belfast now, or tricky HD colour flashes of the films that Buddy enjoys, are rather pretentious; the whole film really didn’t need to be in black and white at all.

Religious bigotry seems rampant in today’s world. Written in letters six feet high across the side of a gable end, the words ‘Kill All Taigs’ has greeted every arrival at Glasgow Airport for six months last year; there’s no political will to remove such graffiti or oppose such hate crimes in general. Branagh’s Belfast doesn’t resolve sectarian issues, or even take a side, but it does acknowledge them, and recounting a personal truth amounts to a subversive act when the establishment are keen to pretend such everyday issues don’t exist. Belfast isn’t a perfect film, but is a genuine crowd-pleaser and a clear sign that the once mercurial writer/director still has something worthwhile to say.

Thanks to Universal Pictures UK for advanced access to this title, previewing this week and out Friday Jan 21st 2022.

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  1. One of the films of the year. Terrific cast. Yes, hint of Hope and Glory, but a different time period and threat entirely and the portrait of family life is superb. Feel-good, yes, but also feel-sad from our knowledge of what happened next. So many fabulous cameos – the sweat-soaked preacher, the secret society, the teacher’s barmy promotion/relegation, the off-key Danny Boy rendering. Still think the black-and-white is artistic pretension with the colour in there as a sop to tourism to justify the funding. But that – and the idea of a cash-stumped family affording a full Thunderbirds rig for Buddy at Xmas – are small nitpicks.

  2. This looks right in my wheelhouse. I’m loathe to watch anything with Caitriona Balfe in it, as I love her in Outlander so much that I want her preserved in amber as Claire Fraser. However, I suppose cannot punish her great acting by refusing to watch her roles!

    • She’s very good in this. Funny how some performers seem precious to us, you almost don’t want to see them play another role. I suspect she and her agent will feel differently. The big musical scene would be a stand-out in any film in any year, lovely, romantic stuff.

      • You’re right, I know. It’s selfish of me and I will watch this film as my way of thanking her for doing such justice to one of my favorites literary heroines!

          • I often find actors are paid far less than we expect. What matters here is that she’s great in this film.

            • Absolutely brilliant. Actually, I would be surprised if she was paid anything much. This looked like an arthouse film with an arthouse budget and my guess is a lot of pressure was exerted on actors who came from Ireland to support the cause – Dornan, Hinds and Hill all Belfast-born, Balfe from Dublin.

  3. I’m a big fan of Hope and Glory, haven’t seen it in years. That and Excalibur are two of my teen-faves! Black and white = serious, right? Or is it arty? I’d love to see a vibrant, colourful 1960s-set film.

    • Yup, I’ll be returning for more Excalibur soon, but Hope and Glory seems like the direct model here. Don’t get me wrong, the photography here is gorgeous, but black and white is something that existed only in photographs, and inevitably alienates a large chunk of the audience. People will still go and dig it, just not so many…

  4. Another seeming coming of age and semi-bio (as you say and I agree) by a mercurial writer/director. I also agree film didn’t need to be in b&w; 60’s were quite colorful. Eerie, I just posted a blog about my recall of 1969 though not a word about the troubles. My grandad did have quite a bit to say about the Battle of Bogside and beginning of Op Banner, though he lived in Philly. I had to look up what Taig meant, oh.
    Not much of the mystical in film, except for the shots of inbetween places and spaces–nice photograph. I appreciated the music of Morrison and the nod to westerns via High Noon. I liked the comparison to Hope & Glory and have to wonder if this could have been a ‘more perfect’ film if it were a bit more like To Kill a Mockingbird? Again, brilliant critique, thanks much.

    • I just don’t get the fetish for black and white. Is Branagh saying that Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was real and his grandparents weren’t? My guess is that he means to opposite, but there’s tonnes of people who simplay will not watch a black and white movie. Branagh even has flashes of color on the televisions and cinema screens, so there was No aspect of his childhood which was black and white. Totally agree that there’s a lack of mysticism, or interest in anything more than the day to day, and maybe that’s how Branagh saw it. So it’s Fellini by numbers, but it’s stil good; Dench is pretty much everyone’s granny in this. Buddy’s family being outsiders works for this too, since they’re not too deep in the local history, and Buddy’s lack of understanding can be excused. But Branagh did catch the immediacy of the Troubles, and unfortunately, we’re still living with the divisions which widened at that time. It’s certainly not as smart as Harper Lee, but Belfast does have more punch than I anticipated, and may well strike a chord around the world. I’m sure a few members of the Irish diaspora will relate to what they see here…

  5. I didn’t realize Branaugh directed Thor. Man, that’s too bad because that was a horrible movie.
    But you didn’t like Shadow Recruit? I thought it was a fun call back to the Ryan movies of the 90’s.

    Another black and white film eh? I guess nobody on the cast could afford an iphone to use instead :-/

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