By Christopher Lloyd
“Be good… and if you can’t be good, be careful.”
I can see the pieces of other films and creative works in Kenneth Branagh’s semi-autobiographical portrait of an Irish family struggling during The Troubles of 1969.
Frank McCourt’s celebrated “Angela’s Ashes” is there, of course, along with John Boorman’s much-unappreciated “Hope and Glory,” and Bille August’s “Pelle the Conqueror,” too. These are historical stories of degrading poverty and uplifting hope, as a young boy tries to navigate perilous events while struggling to understand and fit in with his family.
These influences, clear as they are, don’t register as thievery so much as benevolent affiliation — almost like the way you pick up stories and sayings from your own family and unconsciously repeat them.
Branagh’s film is unabashedly sentimental in its portrait of Buddy, a boy of about 9, and his parents, brother and grandparents. They’re a close-knit clan, born partly out of having to share the same cramped apartment in a lower-class neighborhood where everybody owes years of back taxes.
What I didn’t expect was for the movie to be so funny. There are certainly moments of sadness and even tragedy, as Protestant/Catholic violence reaches a fever pitch approaching ethnic cleansing. But there is lots of laughter, too, from wry smirks to straight-up guffaws.
This is the sort of movie that will make you cry, and then it will make you cheer.
Newcomer Jude Hill is a revelation as Buddy, a blond cherub of pinchable cheeks and sensitive eyes. His family are Protestants on a mostly Catholic street. As the story opens their joyous tumult of children playing in the alley and mothers gossiping on the stoops is interrupted by an attack of Protestant militia. Windows are broken and a car goes up in a fireball.
Soon the neighborly street is one of scorched blockades and nightly vigilante patrols.
Buddy’s Pa is away in England on a construction job most of the time, returning every other weekend. The local boss (Colin Morgan) is pressuring him to betray his neighbors or face the wrath himself. Pa wants to leave Belfast, dropping brochures of Vancouver or Sydney, but Ma (a regal Caitriona Balfe) is adamant that this is their only home. She’s also frightened of stories of Irish immigrants being mistreated in other lands.
Jamie Dornan as Pa earns full forgiveness for his role in those execrable “50 Shades of Grey” movies. Here he plays a resolute man who’s being squeezed from all sides, trying to do the best he can. Buddy sees him as a hero, so that’s what he tries to be.
Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds play his parents, Granny and Pop, who dispense wisdom in between loving squabbles. Pop mostly tinkers in the rear “garden,” which is where the household toilet and his tool shop reside.
They have no intention of leaving Belfast themselves but gently nudge the family to find safety and prosperity wherever you can. “The Irish were born for leaving,” Granny intones above her knitting.
Really, “Belfast” is the story of a long goodbye. I don’t think there’s any suspense in the fact that eventually the violence and pressure is going to become too much for them to stay. Buddy acts as the family’s weather vane, starting out from a point of stubborn refusal to budge and gradually shifting with the shrieking winds.
Buddy has an ongoing romantic longing for the smartest girl in his class (Olive Tennant). The children’s seating is ordered by how they’ve done on the latest tests, so he strives harder in his schoolwork so he can ascend to the front of the class and sit next to her. (Alas, the movie misplaces this quest thread in the second half.)
The black-and-white cinematography by Haris Zambarloukos is just sumptuous, lovely ribbons of every shade of gray. I liked how it’s broken up by vivid splashes of color for certain points in the story, especially when Buddy and his kin partake in his favorite pasttime, going to the movies. The music from Van Morrison is a non-melodic oceanic tide of doeful tones and ethereal hums.
“Belfast” is wonderful, lean storytelling at just 97 minutes. I think this movie would be a dreadful chore at 2½ hours, which is where a lot of filmmakers seem to land these days. We get a full sense of Buddy’s community, his parents’ fractious but deeply loving relationship and his own turmoil without wallowing in repetitive scenes of woe.
When it comes to cinematic sadness, it’s best to hit it hard, quickly — spreading it out leaves less of a taste, like too little butter over too much bread.