Belfast, written and directed by Kenneth Branagh is a beautiful but not without fault semi-autobiographical film that explores a wonderful childhood disrupted by conflict. Starring Jude Hill, Caitríona Balfe, Jamie Dornan, Ciarán Hinds, and Dame Judi Dench, Belfast is for sure going to be heavily nominated this awards season. Despite this, a few others like my criticism mentor, Cahir O’Doherty are hesitant to overpraise this over simplified reflection on The Troubles.
Jude Hill gives a great performance for a newcomer as all of his reactions and interactions with both those around him, and the events outside of his control are pure, full of unbridled wonder, joy, and of course absolute terror. Hill’s buddy actually reminded me of myself at that age, playing pretend with wooden swords, watching Sci-Fi movies and shows, loving being with my Pop, getting in trouble after taking orders from mischievous cousins and being absolutely in awe of both film and theater.
Playing Buddy’s parents, Jamie Dornan and Caitríona Balfe are great together but the latter is for sure going to be nominated for best supporting Actress at the next Academy Awards. Balfe is strong willed and fiercely loyal to both the city and more importantly her family. On one side of her coin, she can be hard, strong willed and determined to see her family through even when danger is staring her in the face and on the other side, she is compassionate, understanding and vulnerable, she is the glue that makes the family stick through all of the hardships the family is facing, which reminded me of a lot of the Irishwomen I know.
The performance and relationship that really hit me hard was between Ciarán Hinds as Pop and Jude Hill as Buddy. The gentleness, care, and compassion that Hinds displays is completely the opposite of who I knew Hinds as and he reminded me of my own Pop who’s family came from Donegal and was also was the person that I went to with my troubles. I wouldn’t be surprised if he too received a nomination.
You can really tell Branagh’s love for the stage as it is fully on display when it comes to the set pieces, and blocking. Branagh’s nostalgia when it comes to its setting serves him well as when one sees the houses and blocks in Belfast, people absolutely live on top of each other creating a very tight knit community. Whether it be in their brick and mortar backyards, in the sheds, or in the street, every part of that setting is used in the frame creating these living paintings. You not only see the scene’s main characters, but you also see other characters in the background like Dame Judi Dench’s Granny. Despite having great performances, and artistic cinematography, the confrontation of the core of the story, the beginning of the thirty year conflict that caused the deaths of thousands is often left in the background.
I understand that the film is Kenneth Branagh’s reflections on his childhood growing up and his family’s leaving of Belfast. However, for one who not only has studied the events of Irish history, and knows people who went through and covered The Troubles, it feels like Branagh is avoiding a deeper reflection on the period and that could be dangerous.
Belfast will be many people’s first experience with something that relates itself back to The Troubles and Branagh’s use of context and subtext to introduce the reasons and its perpetrators create a simplified version of the events and the men who participated and activated the atrocities. There is one singular line about one of the major causes of the conflict and that is civil rights. This line is used from a television clip from the period itself and is just that, a line. Never again in the film, do we hear about how Catholics, inspired by the American Civil Rights movement protested for better treatment and the end to systemic sectarianism and violence.
In this, a day and age in which generations of young people are looking to dispel all forms of bigotry, it would have made more sense to showcase that part of The Troubles than to make it seem like it was a standoff between the “good” Protestants and the “bad” ones. Branagh is using this ahistorical and hindsighted narrative to almost correct the issues of the past in order to both please the Irish nationalist and British loyalist communities within Belfast leading for one to believe that his use of blissful context and subtext hints at Branagh hesitation to call out those in power in the British government who supported men like his “baddie” (Colin Morgan) in order to keep his more known British fame.
In addition to this, the film closes with a dedication for those that were able to leave, those that stayed, and those that died in the conflict. If you want to commemorate those that were forced to immigrate, stay, or die, at least try to provide full historical context. Despite heartfelt performances that often reminded myself of my inner child, and a good narrative, its context and the subtext of Belfast kind of disappoints.