Belfast (2021)

Ma, Pa, Granny and Buddy.

I never understood the historical, religious and political conflict in Northern Ireland. At the time, all I saw was tragedy. No, I did not live there, so it is perhaps not fair to comment. I do not judge, and naïvely, I always wondered why everyone could not find a way to live in peace.

When I first read about this film, I had both an interest and a hesitation. I like films about real people, even when the stories have sadness and struggle. I approached this film with caution because of the subject matter. How could a film about the conflict in Northern Ireland be entertaining? I also had a concern about writer/director Kenneth Branagh. Talented yes, but I’ve been put-off before by his films. I find him often quite obvious and heavy-handed. This is often my criticism of actors turned directors. Hence my hesitation. I put a hold on this film at the library, so when my turn arrived, I stared at this film like a letter from the Internal Revenue Service (the tax man).

Belfast is mainly photographed in black & white, except for except for the bookends of the film, and a couple of splashes (at the theater and cinema). The black & white represents the story in 1969; any present day, cinema clips or theatrical production are in color. There is quite a contrast between living in a conflict, and life represented elsewhere.

I applaud Branagh for showing the beauty in the city and people, and the dream-crushing tragedy of the conflict. The black & white photography shows a very very different world and existence. Despite the threats to daily life and broken dreams, there was a lot of romance, growing and living going on under the street riots and bombs. Not every Catholic and Protestant were involved in this conflict, many seemed to not understand or participate in the hate and violence, including the main family in the film. The presence of British troops complicated matters as their peacekeeping was unwelcome by many, and made them a target and participant in the conflict.

I do not quite understand the use of the word “conflict” because the fighting and division was really a civil war. Again, I will fallback on my ignorance.

This film, which takes place in 1969, is loosely based on Branagh’s (he wrote the film) own experience growing up, and the film is chiefly seen through the young boy’s (Buddy) eyes, and the impact on him and his struggling family. This conflict has deep implications for those on the sidelines, like Buddy’s family, who just want to live their lives, and see people, not religion in their neighbors. When Buddy talks to his dad about the girl he likes, even though she is Catholic and they are Protestants, is she is a nice person, she is welcome in their home.

Branagh mixes American films (One Million Years B.C., The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, High Noon, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) into the story as cultural metaphors for the struggles of the family and community, and the help of fantasy to escape their reality. Scenes from those films could fit neatly into Belfast, and Branagh overlaps music and dialogue over Belfast scenes. He also uses images of the weather, storm clouds, rain and window reflections to reveal undercurrents of emotion, fear and courage. I have to admit, Branagh’s “obvious” filmmaker techniques actually help convey to outsiders the complexity of the reality these characters face.

Buddy is having girl problems, hesitant to reach out to a classmate he likes. That is very heavy issue in Buddy’s world. Meanwhile, his pa is having problems with Buddy’s ma, who is deeply concerned about their tax problems, and her husband’s desire to leave Belfast, the only city they have ever known. Buddy can see that him ma and pa have a deep love for each other, which makes their disagreements more poignant.

The cast is top rate, although I was unfamiliar with all except Judi Dench (James Bond films, Philomena, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel) and Ciaran Hinds (Road to Perdition, The Sum of All Fears, Munich), who play Buddy’s grandparents (Granny and Pop). Buddy is particularly close to his grandfather, who is helping him with navigate growing up.

Belfast is an earnest film, not contrived or having false notes. Some have noted the the moments of lightness and quirkiness of some characters. This is not a comedy, yet it tries to portray these as real characters who share love, humor and disappointment.

Granny, Buddy and Pop.

Van Morrison provides the music, some of his well-known songs and snippets of incidental music. Mostly, the music chosen is effective, although it does draw more focus from the film to the music than needed. The instrument of choice for the background musical passages is the saxophone, which can fuel an upbeat and energetic gale or a slow, winding, introspective slice of life. I first thought Morrison to be an odd choice for supplying music for this period piece, but after viewing the film twice, the music works, even though Morrison’s music is like a kaleidoscope of vivid emotional color in a black & white film. I thought back to one of Morrison’s best albums, Inarticulate Speech of the Heart, a sophisticated and soulful blend of airy Celtic and R&B delight. The man knows how to sing to the soul.

Belfast is not a history lesson. You will not understand the conflict any better, but that’s not really the point. It is the story of relationships and the bonds that matter. See it? Yes.

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