REVIEW: Belfast [2021]

Rating: 8 out of 10.
  • Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 98 minutes
    Release Date: January 21st, 2022 (UK) / November 12th, 2021 (USA)
    Studio: Universal Pictures International / Focus Features
    Director(s): Kenneth Branagh
    Writer(s): Kenneth Branagh

What’s yours is mine and what’s mine is my own.

There’s a version of Kenneth Branagh‘s personal coming-of-age story Belfast that probably could have been rated-G and the fact he refused to deliver it should be praised. That doesn’t necessarily mean sanitizing a violent and deadly conflict like the late-1960s start of “The Troubles” into a PG-13 is much better, though. If not for regular explosions and a superficial entrance into the politics (reduced to Protestants hating Catholics on a religious basis rather than the more integral nationalist one religion facetiously shrouded), Branagh could have certainly appealed for a PG at the very least. Since there wouldn’t be anything left of actual intrigue going that route, however, he had to find a reason to juggle his cutesy, nostalgic tone with that explosive environment. The answer: Buddy (Jude Hill).

Branagh takes everything we know about this civil war and filters it through the mind of a nine-year-old to both minimize the danger’s complexity and embellish the lens through which we see it. Buddy doesn’t really know what’s going on or why, he’s merely stuck in the middle as neighbors he’s known since he was born are being harassed and threatened by the same. He’d rather just play with whomever than think about what church they go to first. And his parents have assured him it will all blow over (many agree that the Good Friday Agreement of 1998—three decades later—officially ended the fighting). So, Buddy innocently continues with his adolescence. The ways in which he gets in trouble are simply colored differently by their context.

It leads to some truly wild juxtapositions—not unlike Jojo Rabbit from a couple years ago. A looting scene of what we can assume is a Catholic-owned market by Protestant rioters is undercut by the humor of throwing the wholesome Buddy into it (his first thought when told to take what he needs is to grab a box of laundry detergent for Caitriona Balfe‘s Ma). The inevitable standoff between Jamie Dornan‘s Pa and the two-bit gangster trying to coerce him into choosing a side (Colin Morgan‘s Billy Clanton) is transformed into a western-style white hat versus black hat climax like the ones Buddy watches on television. Every time Branagh finds himself up against the wall of harrowing drama, he lets the boy’s imagination render it into a game.

Branagh lived this exact life and certainly experienced it with the same disconnect. Between the ways in which Buddy’s parents and other adults shielded him from the truth and his own desire to have fun, this is what it’s like to endure hardship without knowing any better. Buddy doesn’t know that stealing from Mr. Singh’s store was probably initiated as a hate crime by someone using Protestant children as pawns. He doesn’t know that worrying about people potentially throwing a Molotov cocktail through his window because Ma and Pa are “sympathizers” isn’t normal. He just lives his life like his favorite scene in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang where it feels like he’s going over a cliff before the car sprouts wings to fly him to safety.

That’s a testament to the love Buddy is shown by friends and family. To experience those horrors and still be able to wear a smile on his face while Ma and Pa discuss leaving Belfast behind isn’t possible without an ironclad support system providing him the escape routes he needs physically, emotionally, and intellectually. Ma makes sure he stays in line and doesn’t fall prey to the pressure of recruitment. Pa’s weekends home from working in England become a reprieve from the chaos often spent at the movies. And Granny (Judi Dench) and Pop (Ciarán Hinds) are there to catch him when they cannot. Think about math and young Catherine (Olive Tennant). Think about being a kid without letting the rampant prejudices and hate dig in its claws.

Does it feel a bit like The Troubles are being exploited at times? Sure. How can it not when you’re mired in these nightmarish situations only to find them concluded with an almost fantastical stroke of luck? The sooner you accept that everything is happening through Buddy’s eyes, however, the sooner you can sit back and enjoy the humor as a device to cut through that dread rather than a distraction seeking to sweep it under the rug. Hinds and Dench are a big part of that distinction by way of their simplified yet pithy (and never pandering) explanations of reality, but most of the credit lies with Balfe. No matter how infectious the precocious Hill’s joy for life is, her performance keeps the whole grounded and vital.

Here’s a woman struggling to maintain a sense of normalcy despite “normal” being gone. Where Buddy can process the violence as “normal” because he’s too young to really know how life should be, Ma is torn in two. Belfast is all she’s ever known. It’s all any of them has. She therefore wants to believe that it will prevail. If Pa comes home to help keep an eye on the boys and protect the family, things will turn around. Except, of course, that’s nothing more than a lie she tells herself with a hefty dose of misguided hope. Unemployment is at an all-time high. Pa having good work across the water is all that’s keeping them (barely) afloat. Watching Balfe realize Ma can no longer pretend is devastating.

A lot is regardless of the lighter moments. Young love is only sweet until questions about religion risk its wholesomeness. Optimism for the future is only so broad once you consider the logistics of what survival entails. Not everyone can afford to leave … even when they can’t afford to stay. It’s why Branagh dedicates the film to “Those who stayed” and “Those who left” and “Those who were lost.” Nothing about this era was devoid of mess and complication. Luck became a driving force for many of those who came out the other side. Everyone who stayed had someone who left and vice versa. And none were spared loss. That Buddy could retain any happiness is a blessing because living through that moment was undeniably a curse.

[1] Jamie Dornan (left) stars as “Pa” and Caitriona Balfe (right) stars as “Ma” in director Kenneth Branagh’s BELFAST, a Focus Features release. Credit : Rob Youngson / Focus Features
[2] Jude Hill stars as “Buddy” in director Kenneth Branagh’s BELFAST, a Focus Features release. Credit : Rob Youngson / Focus Features
[3] (L to R) Caitriona Balfe as “Ma”, Jamie Dornan as “Pa”, Judi Dench as “Granny”, Jude Hill as “Buddy”, and Lewis McAskie as “Will” in director Kenneth Branagh’s BELFAST, a Focus Features release. Credit : Rob Youngson / Focus Features

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.