A movie like Belfast has been made before, and probably will be made again many times I suspect. Directors love to make semi-autobiographical movies. John Boorman did it with Hope and Glory. Barry Levinson did it with Avalon. Greta Gerwig did it with Ladybird. You’d almost wish they’d just do a movie about themselves but I guess that would be too vain.
Belfast is Kenneth Branagh’s turn as he tells about his young childhood in the city during the time of the Troubles in 1969. Billed as a comedy-drama, there is a constant back and forth of scenes of Buddy (Jude Hill) and his family having fun times, while running from bomb explosions and riots. The opening starts out with a nice, fun day outside turning into chaos as a bomb explodes.
The Troubles was an awful time across the pond as political disagreements as well as hostilities between Protestants and Catholics created tension in which the wrong thing said could turn violent. We’re not shown much of this through Buddy as they go to church once, maybe twice as a ludricous priest tells them how bad Prostestants are and then they’re expected to give tithing.
The rest of the movie focuses on Jude and how his family deals with the events. Ma (Caitronia Balfe) is mostly the one over the household as Pa (Jamie Dornan) comes and goes as he has to work in London to repay some debts. There are several scenes of them discussing moving away which angers Ma as she wants to stay. Buddy’s grandparents, Granny (Judi Dench) and “Pop” (Ciaran Hinds) give the movie its needed human touch and both actors are the highlights.
But unfortunately, you’ve seen this movie before. It’s Cinema Paradiso set in Northern Ireland as Buddy escapes into the world of TV and movies. Branagh shoots the movie in color while the Belfast reality is in black and white. It’s a nice aesthetic.
At school, Buddy has a nice crush arc with a Catholic girl, Catherine (Olive Tennant). Buddy’s too young to really be into girls that the glam of TV and movies is his current love. But Branagh films these scene that they’re not forced. The problem is that since they are Protestants, there’s tension throughout their neighborhood by the Protestant loyalist spearheaded by a rabble rouser Billy Clanton (Colin Morgan). The man’s dangerous but since we’re seeing this through Buddy, he doesn’t know how dangerous he can be.
There’s a bigger story here that Branagh unfortunately doesn’t touch on. At merely an hour and a half give or take for credits, he knows not to make this a lavish period piece epic. Yet, he falls into the same tropes of lavish period piece epics. There’s always a scene of a young boy playfully running. I don’t know why they think this is needed. But there’s more running by young boys in these movies than any Tom Cruise movie.
Next up the trope is the child abuse. Ma may look like an Irish June Cleaver but there are several scenes of her abusive nature. Branagh doesn’t exactly show it the way other filmmakers have non-chalantly shown parents hitting their children upside the head, but you know it happened off screen. During one tense scene, she screams at Jude and then threatens to beat an older girl he’s with “black and blue.” Child abuse is very common in these movies. It’s hard to like or empathize with a character once they’ve cross this line even if they think it’s “child rearing.”
Thankfully, Branagh doesn’t reduce the movie into the piece of garbage that was Angela’s Ashes. There’s only one scene of Pa in a pub drinking with the boys and he’s not totally soused or blowing all the family’s money. Regardless, I was just bored by this movie at times. So many people were praising Hill but I found it him annoying. Buddy has an older brother, Will (Lewis McAskie) who seems more like he was added as an afterthought during a second or third draft but Branagh didn’t want to do much with him.
Maybe it’s because Branagh sees that America is having similar issues as the Troubles so that’s why he chose to make it at this stage in his career. The Troubles were still ongoing when he broke through in the 1990s. With mass shootings a daily occurrence in this country, you can see similarities. Branagh has evolved from making Shakespeare adaptations to making MCU blockbusters, so if you got a story to tell people, sometimes it’s better to do when you can attract a better audience.
I’m not saying that it’s not a bad movie, I just didn’t really like it. Mainly because I’ve seen this movie time and time before. One day, maybe some directors will make semi-autobiographical movies about what it was like to grow up during the Cold War hysteria or the economic collapse of the Reagan era. The Troubles ended only 24 years ago. It doesn’t seem like a long time because it wasn’t. But during it’s time, thousand of people died or were severely injured.
Buddy and his family weren’t out to change much but they were faced with a tough decision – leave their home where their grew up and generations before them lived and die or start anew in a more safer area. Right now, people are talking about leaving America if things don’t get better. I don’t think they can wait several decades for it to happen. And I would also suggests people still remember and still have issues regarding how things happened.
There’s an old African proverb that goes: “The axe forgets; the tree remembers.”
What do you think? Please comment.