Article Series by Ray Schillaci
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment presents Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast with a well-deserved six nominations from the Academy Awards including Best Original Screenplay and Best Picture. It has also won Best Screenplay from the Golden Globe Awards and Outstanding British Film from BAFTA. This is perhaps writer/director Branagh’s most personal film telling the story of a young boy growing up in Belfast, Ireland, during the tumultuous late ’60s.
There is young love, a devotion to family and neighbors, intolerance, religion, and a wonderful lesson to be learned in Branagh’s melancholy look into the journey of a nine year-old boy, Buddy, and his Protestant family living in Northern Ireland all to the music of Van Morrison who also came from Belfast. In the beginning, we are treated to kids playing in the close-knit neighborhood where everybody seems to know one another. The scene is relatively peaceful and nostalgic until Protestant “loyalists” attack the homes and businesses of Catholics on Buddy’s street. It’s violent and chaotic, and Buddy finds himself caught in the middle of it until his mother valiantly grabs a metal trash can lid for protection and scoops her child out of danger.
Afterwards, the neighborhood sets up barricades to prevent further conflicts just in time for Buddy’s father to arrive back from work where he travels many miles and stays over for weeks at a time. As the family unites and goes to church for some peace, Buddy only finds more conflict with a fire and brimstone minister who declares there are only two pathways in life: the one leading to heaven and the one leading to eternal damnation where the Catholics are heading. This proverbial “fork in the road” is a constant in Buddy’s life.
In the meantime, the boy grows fond of a young Catholic girl in school. She seems no different than him, being a high achiever and respecting elders. There is also a beautiful relationship between Buddy and his grandparents portrayed charmingly by Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds (both up for supporting Oscars). Then there is Buddy’s family, loving parents that are fighting debt and trying hard to keep their children from bad influences.
Unfortunately, Buddy’s younger brother is helping one of the hoodlums, Billy Clanton, that leads the Anti-Catholic movement. Billy approaches Buddy’s “Pa” about being part of his movement and gives him an ultimatum; contribute money to the cause or take up arms with them. Pa refuses to be involved and Billy levels threats against him and his family.
Pa longs to escape the environment and wants to move to Sydney or Vancouver with his family. Just the idea of this devastates Ma and Buddy. She does not want to move far from family and friends and she definitely does not want to move somewhere and fears that they would be just as hated for their heritage and their accents. Buddy does not want to leave his grandparents, friends, and especially the girl he intends to marry even if she is Catholic.
In the meantime, Buddy is invited to a “secret” gang by his older cousin, Moira. She entices him into joining and tells him all that is required is that he pass a test or two. One of the tests happens to be stealing something from the local store. Buddy knows that this is wrong, but gets caught up in the plan by his cousin and her friends. In turn, Buddy is questioned by the police and refuses to give any information. He’s in more trouble by his mother than the authorities.
Branagh tells his story in a casual style much like the music to Van Morrison. It may feel slow at times, but Buddy and his families’ story all eventually lead to something very special. Although the writer/director relishes in the nostalgia, he never stoops to over sentimentalizing the period or the family. Branagh gives us exactly what he’s aiming for, a slice of a very turbulent life of those who survived.
Dench and Hinds as Buddy’s grandparents practically disappear into their parts. They are the standouts whenever on screen and evoke the spirit of many loved elders who have been in our own lives. Jaime Dornan’s portrayal of Buddy’s father as a fine man who only wants to do the right thing by his family and has no tolerance for bullies like Billy Clanton is also a standout.
The film begins in color displaying the Belfast of today and swiftly turns to black and white echoing the long gone era. This is a first class production from beginning to end. Acting is top notch. A wonderful attention to detail in production and sound design. The black and white cinematography is put to beautiful use. It all adds up to a great piece of filmmaking that is as assured as some of the best in 2021.
Belfast is currently playing theaters and available on PPV and at Redbox. Personally, I would stick to viewing it on Blu if you rent a disc or in 4K if watched on Amazon. Belfast is so rich in its presentation it would be shame to view it on a mere standard definition display. For many, subtitles will be a must since you can tend to lose some of the great dialogue with the heavy accents. This is one of the top films of 2021, and it is said that the Oscars could be a three way race between CODA, Power of the Dog and Belfast. The later being a perfect example of British filmmaking at its best.
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