Written by Taylor Baker
Belfast-born Kenneth Branagh’s latest film Belfast is a love letter to a time gone by. Like a mid-size jawbreaker, you know what it is from the outset, but there’s no way to speed up the process of engorging it. As every painfully sweet minute of Belfast rolls by you’re painfully aware that you can’t just chew through it, to do so would be a disaster. Instead, you let the film slowly pour itself onto you like syrup on a flapjack, it oozes along the length of it layering the top, the sides, and eventually the bottom. The sticky liquid seeps in from all around changing its quality and consistency. In this way so too does Branagh convey the life of a small picturesque block in Belfast between neighbors, where everybody knows each other.
Caitriona Balfe plays our surrogate adult lead character, listed simply as Ma. She staunchly wrangles her two sons and husband as best she can, expecting the best out of them. When off-screen her shadow is bled into the decisions and locations of the characters and city. Buddy, our budding new young child star, is invited by his cousin to join a gang and we see in the expression on buddies face his concern and frustration at the idea of being caught by his Ma and what would happen to him consequently.
Belfast starts with Ma hollering for Buddy to come home, that the whole neighborhood recounts up the street and over until eventually Buddy through the neighborhood’s voice here’s her call. He’s brandishing a wooden sword and metal trash can lid for a shield, dueling with another youngster of the neighborhood. He starts rushing back to meet his mother at their walk-up downtown two-story home number 96 when a legion of men at the far end of the street where it t’s amass and begin throwing Molotov cocktails, shattering windows, beating up those in the street, and eventually blowing up a car.
The magic, the joy, the friendliness, and the closeness of this neighborhood has evaporated, like someone putting on the wrong glasses prescription everything looks wrong, then when you take them off your vision goes mostly back, but some things are uglier now. There’s razor-wire barricades, a man taking stock of whose coming and going as you walk through the barricade, it looks like a mini military outpost or something one would see when traveling between the two sides of Germany before the wall fell. It’s not the neighborhood that’s fallen and changed though, it’s the world around this idealistic block that’s shifted. The religious civil war between protestants and Catholics occurring.
Dame Judi Dench plays Granny and Ciarán Hinds is Pop. They draw a strong sense of life and roots to the family, like a sturdy foundation one gets the sense that the neighborhood stands exactly as it does because of the lives these two lead long before we came to lay eyes on them. Jamie Dornan’s Pa is frequently out of the picture hopping across the channel to work in England and leaving the boys and Ma by themselves. As the signs of civil war move up the street to their literal doorstep Pa begins to express his desire for the family to move on from Belfast. To a new country like Canada or Australia where they will no longer be in debt and he can spend time with the family in a place without violence. Ma doesn’t want to walk away from a whole community that loves and raises each other up. The tenuousness of their stance implicates itself on their relationship that doesn’t remove the love the two have but indicates the possibility of a need for separation. As he increasingly spends more and more time away from the family.
Belfast is a story of loss, longing, disillusionment, and family. Branagh’s life itself is reflected on his story with fun nods to a Thor comic and a Hercule Poirot novel from Agatha Christie titled Hallowe’en Party. One can’t help but hope that this may also be a sign of what may come, not just what’s been done by Branagh previously.
Belfast was screened as part of the 2021 edition of the Vancouver International Film Festival.