I didn’t like nor enjoy Belfast, but now a day after leaving the movie theatre, I remain haunted by it.
This autobiographical flashback written and directed by Kenneth Branaugh about his own childhood growing up in working-class Belfast just as the bloody Irish Civil War known as “The Troubles” detonates, is both a deeply-loving tribute to the unbreakable bonds of family and heritage as well as a bleak, often depressing portrayal of precisely how religion and blind hatred can put those values to the test.
Rooted near the industrial docklands of seedy Belfast, 9-year-old “Buddy” isn’t the least bit bothered by his impoverished surroundings, an outdoor toilet, nor the Protestant versus Catholic fanaticism brewing in the streets. Those are adult problems. It reminds us there isn’t such a thing as a normal childhood. Struggling to get steady work while being pressured by fellow Catholics to join the Irish Republican Army, his father (Jamie Dornan) is tempted to leave Belfast behind and move his family far, far away — either to England or Australia. However, bright-eyed Buddy, portrayed wonderfully by Jude Hill, thinks of London and Sydney as strange and scary places. Belfast, for all its mounting troubles and the terror to come, is home.
And so, here’s the suspense of the story — will they stay or will they go?
Ireland has produced tens of millions of such stories for centuries. Indeed, there are far more Irish and Irish descendants living abroad than in the old country. The branches might now grow strong in Boston or Birmingham, but those roots were firmly planted back on the island shamrock. Belfast is a dingy postcard to what it means to be Irish, or more precisely, Northern Irish. Here, there’s an even deeper degree of guilt and suffering.
Enter native Northern Irish son, Van Morrison, who wrote and sings most of the soundtrack (including 7 songs) and plays sax on instrumentals. Morrison, who a generation earlier was raised in East Belfast only a few miles from where Branagh played out in the streets, gives the movie its hope and provides its soul. Hastily-erected barricades and confined row houses make for striking backdrops to some of Morrison’s most uplifting music from around the same period, including “Bright Side of the Road” and “Jackie Wilson Said (I’m in Heaven When You Smile)” which are interspersed into a story with two starkly contrasting narratives. Indeed, all coins have two sides, but it’s still the same coin. There’s Buddy’s naivete and joyous innocence. Then, there’s the brutal reality of what really happening to a city and its people, divided by conflict in the year 1969.
Critically speaking, Belfast wastes far too much time establishing connections with the audience. In the end, the ultimate payoff may be worth it, but the first half of the film seems like a tedious indulgence of the mundane. Sitting around each day on sofas while talking to grandparents about nothing in particular while Star Trek plays on the telly was very likely an entirely accurate remembrance of Branagh’s early upbringing. However, there’s nothing here to latch onto. We know what’s coming, so we stick it out. Getting to the point takes way too long, which is quite a damning statement for a film that clocks in at a relatively speedy 1 hour and 39 minutes.
To be fair, the movie is jump-started about midway through when Buddy’s mother (Caitríona Balfe) suddenly gives the first of multiple tear-jerking soliloquies from various cast members about Ireland, families, war, religion, conflict, and love. She’s magnificent as a conflicted mother-wife who desperately wants to make the right decision for her family’s future. Grandparents Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench also have some misty-eyed moments that will surely stick a lump in your throat, but it’s Balfe and Hill who deliver standout performances.
I wanted to like Belfast more than I did. It’s an ambitious delivery and a deeply moving story. Unfortunately, despite the fine performances, an outstanding soundtrack, and the momentous conflict whirling around the family which threatens to blow them from their homeland there’s just not enough meat in this authentic Irish stew. It’s bland. Even the horrors of The Troubles get treated in a sanitized manner. The excruciating conflict that pitted neighbor against neighbor in streetfights (sometimes to the death), numerous kidnappings, and decades of bloody terrorist explosions all in the name of one form of “Christianity” versus the other, isn’t given nearly enough gravity. Branagh might have successfully made his film that doesn’t take sides, certainly the right course in telling his personal story. Nonetheless, portraying The Troubles so scantily with just a few bloody noses and broken windows seems grossly negligent. The horrors of war can be ripe for comedy farce, such as in Jojo Rabbit (2019). However, here Branagh seems uncertain which tone and direction to take, so he downplays the whole thing.
Still, there are genuine moments to love in this film. There are also at least two Oscar-worthy performances. Branagh himself certainly deserves a nomination for direction. And Van Morrison is in a class all his own for his gifts in stirring the dead and awakening us from melancholy. And so, the film fittingly ends with a swansong, a message, and a prayer of hope in “The Healing Has Begun.”