Kenneth Branagh’s brilliant “little” Belfast

Unlike his previous work, this is a tight, personal film about the experiences of a nine year old boy in a Belfast riven by The Troubles, thirty years of riots and retaliations among warring factions of adults that a child of such a young age is incapable of making any sense of.  The only thing he can do is survive. 

Kenneth Branagh has never been known as a subtle or intimate filmmaker or actor.  This is the man that burst onto the scene in 1988 by taking on the entire Shakespearean establishment with an energetic, action-packed adaptation of Henry V that took direct aim at conventions established by screen legend Laurence Olivier.  He morphed Hitchcock’s conventions into a wild thriller about reincarnation, complete with an attack perpetrated with a giant pair of scissors.  He’s romped through a full text version of Hamlet.  He wrestled Robert DeNiro’s Frankenstein monster shirtless covered in oil.  He brought the Thor portion of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to movie screens, breathing life into the God of Thunder on Earth and in Asgard.  In recent years, he’s chewed scenery in new adaptations of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile.  Throughout, the camera flies around the set with abandon, the actors enter and exit the frame with the precision of a military operation, and the music swells with triumphant zeal.

If you were to ask me to describe Mr. Branagh in one word it would be “bombast,” unashamed, in your face, good old fashioned bombast.  I do not mean this in a negative way.  I’ve been a devoted fanboy since Henry V.  He is the man that started my lifelong love of Shakespeare, and I’ve always believed he remains somewhat underrated as both an actor and a director despite multiple Academy Award nominations.  What he hasn’t done, however, is anything you could truly describe as intimate or personal.  1992’s Peter’s Friends comes closest perhaps, what is sometimes referred to as the British Big ChillPeter’s Friends was undoubtedly Branagh’s most intimate film before Belfast, taking place at a reunion of old college friends in a mansion on New Year’s Eve.  The movie is funny, engaging, and at times touching with fine performances all around.  In the final act, we learn that Peter himself has AIDs, which was effectively a death sentence 30 years ago, and not a topic that was frequently broached in mainstream cinema.  At the same time, there is a definitely stage-like quality to it, though it was written for the screen.  It seems like a throwback to Mr. Branagh’s early career as a stage actor in England, as if he decided to get the band back together for a final performance, lacking some of those indefinable qualities that make movies fundamentally different from theater.

Belfast, however, changes all that.  This is a tight, personal film about the experiences of a nine year old boy in a Belfast riven by strife between Protestants and Catholics, riots and retaliations among warring factions of adults that a child of such a young age is incapable of making any sense of.  The only thing he can do is survive, and so the movie opens on that boy, Buddy, excellently played by Jude Hill, walking down a street that suddenly becomes overrun with chaos as a group of Catholics begin attacking Protestant homes on the previously quiet city street.  A car is set on fire, and Buddy himself is caught in the middle in a powerful, frenetic sequence straight out of an action movie, but filmed in black and white lending it a documentary feel.  He escapes, only to find that the Protestants have been forced out and a barricade has been set up at the end of the block, known as a “peace wall,” to prevent people from freely moving.  Though Buddy and his family are Protestant, they choose to remain on the block, doing their best to remain neutral and avoid the conflict entirely.

This dramatic backdrop is drawn from Mr. Branagh’s own experiences growing up in Belfast in what is known as The Troubles.  The riot depicted in the opening sequence was a real event that occurred in August 1969 and resulted in a deployment of British troops as part of the longest operation in their military history.  The conflict raged on and off for 30 years, not officially ending until 1998.  All told, some 3,500 people died, 52% of them civilians, 32% British security forces, and the remainder paramilitary groups, effectively militias, that sprung up during the conflict, groups whose names might be familiar, the Provisional Irish Republican Army and the Irish National Liberation Army.  The primary disagreement between the two factions wasn’t religious despite the labels.  The Troubles were about the future of Ireland itself.  The Protestants wanted to remain a part of the United Kingdom, but the Catholics wanted to break away and unite Ireland, a sectarian conflict and near civil war if ever there was one.

Belfast isn’t the first time The Troubles were covered in popular culture.  2014’s ‘71 told the story of a young British soldier abandoned by his unit after a riot in Belfast in 1971. 2008’s Hunger is about an Provisional Irish Republican Army member who led a hunger strike at the Maze prison in 1976.  Music has touched on it as well with U2’s unforgettable, “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” reflecting on yet another riot.  “I can’t believe the news today, Oh, I can’t close my eyes and make it go away, How long, how long must we sing this song?  How long? How long?”  No one, however, has done it quite like Branagh because Belfast isn’t a political film.  It’s a coming of age story in an almost war torn setting, making for an unusual dynamic.  The young boy at the center of events he can’t explain isn’t on either side, and therefore neither is the audience.  We see these horrific events through his eyes, imparting a childlike innocence and neutrality to a film that could easily have veered toward a polemic.  Throughout, the only side we take is his as he’s buffeted by forces he cannot control and events that swirl around him like a thunderstorm, the same as the riot in the opening sequence.  The reality of a fractured Ireland is a fact of life for Buddy, not something he can change or influence in any way, and by viewing the world through his eyes the audience gets the same impression.  This frees the final product from making a political statement, and enables it to focus on far more universal concerns and values, a lesson about life in general.

Hence, we experience the world through Buddy’s eyes as he learns difficult lessons about family, love, and loss.  Likewise, his own family is also caught between two worlds.  His father works in England, leaving him with his mother, grandfather, and grandmother for long stretches at a time.  His father, when he is home, also refuses to take part in The Troubles, even under pressure from a rabble rouser to take sides and support the “cause.”  Buddy learns much from his grandfather including the many vagaries of adult life.  In a particularly charming scene, he tells young Buddy to answer math questions with sloppy handwriting, hoping the teacher might mistake a 1 for a 2 or a 7.  Buddy is confused by the suggestion, and wonders why that should be the case if there is only one right answer.  His grandfather, portrayed brilliantly by Ciarin Hinds, replies if that were true, why are people always fighting all the time?  Buddy applies this lesson in school and his teacher falls for it, moving him up in the class, but even that has a price:  He’s now further away from his young love interest, Catherine.  We learn later that she is a “dreaded” Catholic, not that Buddy cares one whit.

In between, he falls under the sway of an older girl, Moira, a member of a teenage gang.  Moira convinces him to join them in thieving chocolates from a local sweet shop, but Buddy is caught.  He refuses to name his accomplices, however, and ultimately earns their respect.  When she encourages him to participate in another robbery, this one a larger scale affair targeting a looted grocery store he joins them and is terrified to steal a box of detergent.  He brings it home and his mother forces him back to the store to return it, catching them up in another riot that ends with a standoff between the rabble rouser, his father, and the police.  At this point, the family realizes they have no choice but to leave Belfast.  They cannot continue down the middle path forever. Throughout, there are obvious parallels to earlier coming of age stories like A Christmas Story or even Jo Jo Rabbit with perhaps an ode to Stranger Things for the action sequences and scenes of trauma, but the film remains Branagh’s own.  There are his signature long takes and perfectionist framing, two shots and three shots with an expansive view of the drama, lightened by classic music from Van Morrison. As a director that has done the highest of the high brow in adapting Shakespearean classics to making movies purely for money for Disney, he seems ideally suited to chart the middle path, balancing the concerns of the high and the low, combining disparate elements in his work, which has chiefly been defined a love of theater and cinema in all its forms.

Some have criticized this approach, lambasting Mr. Branagh for refusing to take a side.  Film Magazine, for example, believes there’s a “there’s a sense of lingering falsity about the whole thing, one that Belfast never seems to shake.”  Though the film excels “in terms of characterisation and dialogue exchanges, and working to get some career-high performances out of a number of its cast,” “it ultimately falls to Kenneth Branagh’s below-par direction which unfortunately sells a vision that ironically Hollywoodises his tale and worse still has very little to say.”  In my opinion, they are missing the point:  It’s easy to take sides.  Name an issue, any issue from the important to the mundane, and there will be fervent advocates on either side.  One only need browse social media for a few minutes to understand how polarized the world is over just about everything imaginable.  Further, these arguments often occur in such tribal fashion, the language itself seems unique to each side, as if one is incapable of even understanding what the other is saying.  The middle in these debates is very hard to find and almost impossible to maintain for adults, though it comes easy to children.  Belfast makes this message real, both in Branagh’s own experience and our experience watching the film, taking us back to when we were young and the world of adults made little sense.

The action occurs around us, big, bright, and dangerous, yet we remain somehow apart in the safety of our childhood even in the midst of a civil war.  Perhaps, if we might recapture some of that magic, we can also find the middle ground and talk one another for real for once.  Hidden in the film, Mr. Branagh also suggests how, focusing on what unites us:  Buddy loves the movies and the stage like Branagh himself.  These sequences are filmed in color, providing a bright contrast to the black and white of the rest of the film and suggesting that perhaps art is a power above sectarian and other conflict.  Ultimately, Belfast has been nominated for seven Academy Awards (behind 12 for The Power of Dog) and has received high praise from critics in general.  The film is also the first that Mr. Branagh has written himself from an original idea.  At 61 years old, the Shakespearean seems to have a lot of life left in him and, hopefully, we can expect more great films in the future.

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