Belfast employs masterful filmmaking to evoke memories of childhood
Kenneth Branagh brings to life memories of the days of his childhood in Belfast. There is an old bit of advice to writers that, in order to portray a situation with assurance and heart, authors have got to know the territory of which they write. So true. And Branagh proves this in Belfast, a compendium of stories and people from his childhood in a working-class neighborhood in Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Nine-year-old Buddy is Branagh’s depiction of his own youthful self. Played by Jude Hill, this young boy and the people, places, and goings-on in his daily life are a powerhouse of emotion. His loving family are supportive. The mother is smart, with a temper, but kind and beautiful. The father is capable, charming, and well-liked in this small, tight community. The grandparents, Granny and Pop, played by Judi Dench and Ciaran Hinds, are on the stereotypical side. If enacted by lesser performers, they would be wallpaper. But they are played by Dench and Hinds, so they are unforgettable.
After a brief opening in vivid color, the screen images turn to black-and-white. The story of Belfast begins on August 15, 1969. A small mob armed with bottle bombs and stones attacks the folks on the block of houses where Buddy and his family dwell. The aim of the rioters? To get the Catholics out!
This long-lived situation in Northern Ireland forms the backdrop and is the motivator for much of what goes down in this film. It’s the elephant in the room, but not the main story. The story is of the people, mainly those who live on that block of houses, now protected on each end by barbed wire. Branagh taps the strongest recollections of his young life to tell a story of kindnesses, playful mischief, personality types, all in one devoted community.
Belfast could have been a tepid sentimental memoir, an after-school special for those children who don’t have access to more exciting diversions. It is anything but! With Branagh’s brilliant approach, Belfast is a masterpiece of memoir. Nominated for more than 200 awards, and winner of a good many major awards, this film is first-rate in every way.
The COVID-era budget did not allow for Branagh to shoot on 35mm or 65mm celluloid as he usually does. It’s a digital production. The camerawork and lighting are so skillfully executed that this film is beautiful to watch. In addition to the stunning look of the images, there is a shrewd choice of camera placement for the many long shots. Branagh and veteran director of photography Haris Zambarloukos have chosen their shots with great authority.
Little Buddy is highly motivated by pop culture. Part of the charm of the script is revisitng clips from late 1960s movies and the older films and TV shows that show up on Buddy’s family’s TV screen. Classic American Westerns, sci-fi, Disney features…. In one special moment, Granny and Pop dance together as Pop sings a song from the 1960s stage musical Camelot.
Some of the most appealing scenes take place in small backyards with one character seated on the outdoor toilet. It makes the toilet a part of the culture of the neighborhood. Pop says, “There’s nothing wrong with an outdoor toilet, son, except on an airplane!”
Though Protestants, the family is not safe living among the violent rioters. One character says, “The Irish were born for leaving. Otherwise, the rest of the world would have no pubs.”
Belfast offers a feast of Irish wisdom, humor, and emotion. If I were giving out awards, Belfast would be my Best Motion Picture of 2021.
Audrey Kupferberg is a retired film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her late husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.
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