Before we get to the central family in Belfast, I just want to address even a low to mid budget film has room to have erratic stylistic choices. It subverts its black and white period aesthetics. It does so by beginning with a scene in color, depicting the city in present day before jumping into the past. Van Morrison’s – what? – score has both jazzy and synth-y moments. There’s also a lot of pop cultural references, which, duh. Visually, the film’s surfaces attempts texture but that just calls out its artifice. Its best visual feature though, is its claustrophobia and handheld scenes which remind us that space is scarce in urban areas. And that scarcity plays into the film’s bigger themes.
Anyway, the family central to Belfast is watching a movie that feels too mature for one of its younger members, Buddy (Jude Hill) and his brother Will (Lewis McAskie). His Ma (Catriona Balfe) comments on the film’s sexual tone to her husband (Jamie Dornan), who chose the film. The theatre is one of the pockets of the titular city where they can escape. It does, after all, take place in the year 1969, when the titular city is collapsing due to antisocial behavior. Even though Buddy is a good student at nine years old, his cousins are starting to recruit him to shoplift with her. And that obviously leads to worse things. There’s also the tension between Catholics and Protestants, which is destroying Buddy’s family.
Taking a break between his Agatha Christie adaptions (the first one was fine, you guys), director and writer Kenneth Branagh adds this film in the continuing conversation about the Troubles. One or two new voices, in discussing that era, reframe that era within contemporary eyes. Eyes that look at the colonialist, feminist, and racial issues. These are issues that citizens of both Northern Ireland and their southern counterparts are dealing with today. Branagh hints at those issues but also has a common sense approach to what happened during that time. First, he frames members of older generations like the ones that Ma and Pa belong to as less radical.
Second, that Buddy’s tendencies towards radicalism comes from characters who are closer to him than they seem. Branagh does have these moments where he looks at the big picture. But he eventually pulls back and shows that the biggest skirmishes aren’t taking place on the streets. Instead, they are actually taking place in Buddy’s home. The main source of domestic conflict comes from Pa’s work as a joiner in England, taking that job to pay for his tax debts that don’t seem to disappear. His job is also giving him a promotion that requires him to move to England permanently.
So the natural thing is for Pa to ask his family to go and leave his own parents (Ciaran Hinda nd Judi Dench) behind. Leaving is something that both buddy and Ma don’t want to do. There’s enough complexity in the writing itself, but the actors do their job in fleshing out that complex conflict. There’s a lot of hype about Catriona Balfe and she warrants the awards attention she might get here. Her character, funnily enough, reminds me of Branagh’s ex Emma Thompson’s rule about not taking certain parts. Those are parts where where a love interests tells her protagonist husband to not do the brave thing.
Obviously, Balfe is more central here than Dornan is, evoking a young Annette Bening. Anyway, bravery here has more nuance, since we can see that quality in Ma’s stance of staying in a city that’s becoming a warzone. We also see it on Pa’s stance who wants to leave, probably facing xenophobia in England. And yes, there’s a part of me that resents the idea of how Branagh is using this white woman. He specifically uses her as a vessel to encapsulates the immigrant conundrum, but it tracks. Other standouts in the cast include Hinds as the wise grandfather, giving the film its heart.