By Marc S. Sanders
Within the first three minutes of Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast, there is impactful transition that goes reverse in time. Van Morrison supplies the music to the film and it opens in bright color capturing glimpses of the thriving city. There are well paved highways with ongoing traffic. Fresh painted construction cranes stand in front of a blue sky with a warm sun. Buildings have beautiful architecture. There are pieces of eye-popping art within the city. It looks like the most gorgeous vacation destination. Even the opening credits are stenciled in nice gold font. Then Branagh’s camera lifts up over a wall and the screen reverses back in time to August, 1969 where it’s depicted in black and white. A sweet blond-haired boy named Buddy (Jude Hill) is holding a stick and a trash can lid as he slays an imaginary dragon, but then reality dawns upon him and violent riots erupt on the street he lives on. Cars are set on fire, windows are smashed, bricks are thrown, and Molotov cocktails burst into flames. What we see as prosperity now, had a history at one time, and history is not always something to embrace. Belfast reminds us that it was ugly before it got better.
Belfast, Ireland in the late 60s/early 70s is shown through the eyes of Buddy. Branagh never has Buddy be forced to grow up so fast, despite the inflamed conflicts between Protestants and Catholics living in Ireland. He plays in the park. He watches Star Trek on TV. He does his math homework with his Pop (Ciaran Hinds). He’s a little bit of a troublemaker as he pockets chocolate from the local candy store. He also escorts his grandmother (Judi Dench) to the movies and live theater. He’s a happy little kid, but he’s also wise to the new world thrust upon his doorstep. It’s hard not to see the make shift barrier walls of junk at the end of the block and the sometimes-questioning policemen.
His Pa (Jamie Dornan) leaves for two-week trips for work, but when he’s home, Buddy eyes upon his Pa’s childhood friend intimidating him to join the cause to rid the area of Catholicism. His Pa is put into an “either you’re for us or you’re against us” dilemma. Pa does not sway so easily.
His Ma (Catriona Balfe) tries to keep things as normal as possible. A surprising moment occurs when Buddy gets swept up in looting a grocery store with the rioters. He runs home with a box of laundry detergent. Ma will not stand for that and escorts him back to the store to return the item. Ma gets a full account at this moment of what’s become of their hometown when all she wants to do is properly discipline and raise her child.
As tensions rise over the coming months, Ma debates with Pa about whether to leave Belfast for a new life in the United Kingdom. I think this becomes more traumatic for Buddy than the random violence he periodically witnesses. He’d have to leave his grandparents and his school and his friends. As well, he’s been working so hard to keep his grades up so that he can sit at the front of class, next to the young girl he pines for. They are working on a science project that recounts the historic first trip to the moon.
Belfast is a rather short film, but Branagh’s script offers much. It focuses on a piece of mid-twentieth century European history that I was never familiar with. The film gives you the minimum details through conversations and sound bites from news broadcasts. That’s fine, but my attention span was waning at times. It’s not fair for me to criticize the picture this way. I just couldn’t relate to the culture of the community, and so I just was not engaged on this one and only viewing.
It’s clearly well-made, and Branagh presents a convincing depiction primarily of this one residential block that this family lives on. While Buddy’s exploits are endearing and there are especially good performances all around, the riot violence is scary with harsh sound editing of screams and shattering window panes. The cinematography is strong, especially when it contrasts with color. The choice is made to depict a live performance of A Christmas Carol in color while the seated audience with Buddy and his grandmother stays in black and white. Branagh does a cool effect by having bright orange stage lights reflect in Dench’s eye glasses which remain in monochrome. When the family goes to see Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the movie screen is in color like the film they are watching. The characters of Belfast remain in black and white, though. This family and others like them, remember these tumultuous times in a dull, gray perspective. It was a non-celebratory and often harsh way to live. The escapism they partake will always be preserved in promising and welcome colors, however. This is a fantastic storytelling device.
As Kenneth Branagh wrote and directed the piece, it’s clear that he strove for his exact vision and he has a personal achievement he should be proud of. There doesn’t appear to be any compromise to his picture. It’s very well directed with its cast performances, the town extras and the technical choices made. Yet, the film never grabbed me emotionally. Belfast exists to simply to show how this family survived day to day with turmoil surrounding them. If anything, at least I learned something new within the confines of Ireland from fifty years ago.