Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Belfast – one tale from 1969 that was as disturbing then as it is now (UK and Irish cinemas from 21 January 2022)

Belfast lingers for 98 minutes in the microcosm of a single street in north Belfast in the summer of 1969. Paramilitary thugs have threatened Catholic neighbours who up until now have lived peacefully with their Protestant neighbours. Young Buddy (played by Jude Hill) witnesses the violence alongside brother Will (Lewis McAskie). His father (Jamie Dornan) works over in England leaving his Mum (Caitriona Balfe) and paternal grandparents (Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds) to bring him up.

For the most part filmed in black and white, the historical action is sandwiched between colourful and rather artful drone shots of modern Belfast that suggest Van Morrison’s Days Like This may have come to pass. The action out on the street looks all the more violent for being captured in monochrome.

There’s a richness to the details captured in Belfast that’s often absent in other Troubles-related films. That the humanitarian and peacekeeping Star Trek is playing on the home’s TV set adds a layer of irony. The close-up shots of the scary Protestant preacher are really not that exaggerated, with beads of sweat trickling down his face as he threatens the congregation – including little Buddy – with eternal damnation. Scared not to go to church. Scared when they do go.

And with the film telling the story from Buddy’s perspective, he would have felt the presence of a larger-than-life preacher, much as he would not have seen the true context of the trouble on the streets around where he lived.

Ulster humour seeps through the film’s dialogue, particularly as Hinds finds ways to ignore his wife. Dench’s accent is poor but forgivable: maybe she was a blow-in to ‘the province’ fifty years ago? Van Morrison’s pronouncements around Covid will also have to be overlooked as his contribution to the film’s score is second to none. Community spirit abounds, boosted by the forces of opposition that cause the street to be barricaded at one end and patrolled through the night by local volunteers.

If the humour is authentic, so too is the strength of character of the women who held society together. Buddy’s Mum is no doormat and won’t be quickly bounced into agreeing to her husband’s plan to take flight. Balfe portrays a woman whose principles are strong and survive being tested, even if Buddy is marched back to the scene of a crime without quite thinking through the consequences.

Dornan swans in and out of town, loved by the kids, but in constant tension with his wife. The uncertainty about his true job, and his less binary way of analysing the changes in his street mean we fear that he might even be mixed up in the trouble. It’s both plausible and engaging.

Belfast is a film about identity and community, about the limitations and consequences of standing up to intimidation and gangsterism. It turns out that those themes are still as worthy of consideration in 2021 as they were in 1969.

Fictionalising any aspect of the Troubles is a dangerous game for a film producer or director to play. Local audiences will question their agenda, are they promoting that or misrepresenting that?

Kenneth Branagh walks a line that largely lets the viewer make up their own mind about what’s going on. Ostensibly, it’s about a family who want to live well with their neighbours and abhor the violence. But the film doesn’t fall into the trap of moralising and painting goodies and baddies. Instead, Belfast subtly paints a picture of a family tearing itself apart in parallel with the street they live on and, by inference but not often visualised, the rest of the city.

Is Branagh looking through a rose-tinted lens at a city that tore itself apart for a couple of decades. Yes and no. No one story can – or should be expected to – paint a picture of a whole conflict. Did everyone behave like Buddy’s family? No. But some did and their stories should be told alongside other (already more common) narratives. And the film does share the fears and motivations of those who thought they were ‘protecting’ their area.

Belfast will do well outside Northern Ireland. It tells a compelling story from the perspective of a young lad who is so naturally portrayed by Jude Hill. Branagh’s real success – if it actually matters – will be to not have overly wound up local audiences! And I see little reason why it should.

It’s clearly a very personal film for the writer and director who has based the plot on some of his own memories and experiences. The film ends somewhat ambiguously. But we all know that there was no happy ever immediately after in 1969. As the film closes, a dedication appears on screen that reminds us that what we have just watched didn’t resolve after a couple of months:

“For the ones who stayed. For the ones who left. And for all the ones who were lost.”

It’s a sobering and fitting end to a snapshot of Belfast and a family that were spiralling into crisis. Belfast goes on general release across UK and Ireland from 21 January 2022.


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