Released 2021. Director: Kenneth Branagh
CHILDHOOD IS A TIME FILMMAKERS LOVE TO VISIT with a full dose of nostalgia. The reminiscence often gazes at the first intersection when one can recall life taking a turn, sometimes accompanied by a sense of awakening, loss or coming of age. Only recently, notable directors have taken us on trips into their personal history, including Alfonso Cuarón in Roma, Lee Isaac Chung in Minari and Paulo Sorrentino in The Hand of God.
In Belfast, Kenneth Branagh introduces us to nine-year-old Buddy, his alter-ego at a time of political unrest and social disruption, circumstances that eventually changed the course of his life.
Buddy’s carefree existence of family, play and school are interrupted when long-standing antagonism between the Protestants and Catholics turns a neighbourhood into a war zone. Branagh is very specific about the exact date. The movie opens on the 15th of August 1969. In a striking sequence after the opening credits, Branagh skilfully shifts gears from the innocence of children playing in the streets seamlessly into the shock and panic of a sudden descent into mob fighting, window smashing and petrol bombs on a residential block full of kids.
'The Troubles' has invaded Buddy's universe. This is the day when innocence begins to slip away. The boy witnesses acts of violence on his doorstep, his Ma runs to grab him to safety, his Pa stopped and questioned on his way home, the neighbourhood he knows so well taking on a pall of uncertainty.
We rarely venture far from home, the centre of Buddy’s world. Boxed in by rows of terrace houses, this is his place of security and familiarity that’s fast changing shape. At the top of the street now stands a security checkpoint, erected from pavement stones ripped from the ground. Once a playground, now a battlefront.
Against this backdrop of sectarian hostility, Branagh has crafted a portrayal of warmth and affection, a love letter to his hometown, addressing the harsh reality at the time through the eyes of boyish fancy. Pa plans to move the family to London, leaving behind the grandparents. Ma is anxious and unwilling to leave and lose her deep connections with her family and friends. Buddy has a vague awareness of the family’s struggle with money, but the child doesn’t grasp the gravity of the situation.
Buddy’s relationship with his pop and granny is adorable and provides the movie with some of its most poignant moments. Dispensing sage (but not necessarily proper) advice and regaling the youngster with fond memories at the same time, the grandparents serve as a counterpoint to Buddy’s own immature and inexperienced perspective.
Branagh is kind and tender in the dialogue he writes for the family. He also has a good ear for juvenile humour in Buddy’s ill-advised attempts at joining a street gang, leading to an unexpectedly amusing outcome in a store looting when Buddy runs home clutching a box of washing detergent. “It’s biological!” the boy justifies breathlessly.
Buddy’s crush on Catherine, a girl in his class, is a constant on his mind. His teacher rearranges classroom seating based on test results and with the girl always at the top of the class, Buddy strives to improve his grades just so he can sit closer to Catherine. Sometimes he stands across the street from Catherine’s house hoping to catch a glimpse of her. The girl eventually acknowledges and one day Buddy brings flowers. There’s sweetness in their interactions because Branagh never overplays the cute factor.
The beauty of Belfast is how Branagh maintains a childlike simplicity in this worldview. Buddy knows things will never be the same again but he doesn’t ask why people are fighting. Seen through the eyes of a child, the movie doesn’t drill into political complexities. There are very real and pressing issues including unemployment, prejudice and illness facing the family but like the conflict, they are peripheral to Buddy’s immediate concerns, which include wooing a girl, mischief and going to the movies – sorry, pictures.
Branagh's reconstruction of his early memory in a troubled era, evocatively filtered through visions of domestic warmth and Buddy’s naíveté, owes much to the grounded and sincere performances from the cast, including newcomer Jude Hill as Buddy, Caitríona Balfe as Ma, Jamie Dornan as Pa, Judi Dench as granny and Ciaran Hinds as pop.
Belfast is a depiction of childhood innocence side by side with turbulence. Just as the family makes a difficult decision to leave, the movie is also about letting go, leaving and growing. We all have different childhoods, probably not as eventful or coincided with a historically significant era. When did we leave it behind, when did our awareness of a larger world with its problems and demands begin to overshadow our childish interests and ignorance? When did you leave your own version of Belfast?
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