Released: 3rd February
Seen: 11th February
In August of 1969, there was a series of riots in Belfast that started a 30 year conflict colloquially known as “The Troubles” or the Northern Ireland Conflict. Without going into detail (cos I suck at history), the short version is that it was effectively a civil war between Catholics and Protestants that made life hard for those caught in the middle… one of those people was a young Kenneth Branagh who was only 9 when his family left Ireland and moved to England in order to escape from The Troubles.
When you live through something like that and grow up to be an influential filmmaker like Kenneth did, it feels inevitable that you might turn that period of your life into a film at some point and with Belfast, Kenneth did exactly that… so god it’s going to be awkward to say I’m on the fence on this one.
Belfast is told from the perspective of a 9 year old named Buddy (Jude Hill) who lives a quiet life with his brother Will (Lewis McAskie), his Ma (Caitríona Balfe) and Pa (Jamie Dornan) who are also looking after Granny (Judi Dench) and Pop (Ciarán Hinds). Life is fine until their street is overrun by a riot that is part of The Troubles, homes and businesses of Catholics are damaged and soon a barricade is formed at the end of the street.
While this might keep out the rioters temporarily, little Buddy still needs to go to school and live as normal a life as possible. From the perspective of a child we watch a life trying to be lived under the heaviest of circumstances and seeing if it’s possible to be OK when the world around you seems to be on fire.
By telling the story almost entirely from the point of view of a child, we are really being placed right in the memories of the writer-director. We see the world of Belfast how he remembers it, with spots of colour popping up randomly along the crisp black and white streets.
We get to meet and fall in love with this charming little family with a loving set of parents and grandparents who always seem to be there at just the right time with just the right thing to say. Those moments when it’s just the family life of Buddy is when this film is at its best… mostly because the performances are so good that it elevates the material that’s been given to them.
There’s no other way to describe this, Belfast is not exactly the best written film out there. Sure it has some pretty funny dialogue and the main characters are (mostly) well rounded but the structure of it just feels off. The entire plot is about Buddy living through this period in history, this big ongoing civil war that pops up briefly at the start and the end as actual things we see before just kind of moving on and having a regular set of school days, hanging out with the wrong people and getting into trouble, having strange conversations with Granny. That’s the bulk of the film, just following Buddy’s not-that-interesting young life.
There came a point during Belfast where I caught myself wondering “Wait, wasn’t this about a series of riots that was terrorizing people?” because I kind of forgot… and then the film also had to do about half a dozen endings which almost never works, certainly doesn’t here cos by the time we got to the actual ending i was starting to lose focus because I’d gone through several moments that would’ve ended the story perfectly fine… oh also the actual ending had Judi Dench looking directly into the camera and talking to the audience, after Cats we do not do that shot anymore if we’re wise!
Fortunately for Belfast, and the reason why I still do like it a fair amount, it has just an endlessly charming cast who make everything work. You can tell that these actors created their own little family on set, there’s an undeniable warmth that comes through in every scene that makes it just a nice time to watch. Belfast is the kind of film you send the elderly relatives to. knowing that it’s just harmless enough to not offend them but charming enough that they’ll come out smiling.
Belfast is fine, it’s a fine film that shoots for the middle of the road and lands there. How the hell it’s a nominee for Best Picture this year, or really nominated for anything beyond the acting and cinematography (which it’s not even nominated for, which feels wrong on a different level) I have no idea but it’s still OK. It’s enjoyable enough and harmless enough that it’s impossible to really hate it, but with a director of this caliber, I would’ve hoped there would be so much more substance here.