December 23, 2021 – This dramatic movie about a family threatened by sectarian violence is filled with warmth, humor, and nostalgia about a once-happy neighborhood being torn apart. It is powered by a love of place, as well as a very talented cast of actors.
Written and directed by Kenneth Branagh (“Thor” and “Murder on the Orient Express”) this movie seems to depict an almost autobiographical account of Branagh's own experience growing up in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 1969-70. Branagh has acknowledged this to be a deeply personal movie.
The story is told through the eyes of a nine-year-old boy, Buddy (played by Jude Hill) whose father (played by Jamie Dornan) works in England, only getting back to Belfast to visit Buddy and Buddy's mother (Caitriona Balfe of “Ford v Ferrari”) and Buddy's older brother, Will (Lewis McAskie) once every week or two.
The family lives in a cozy neighborhood surrounded by friends and relatives who look out for each other, including Buddy's grandparents, played by Judi Dench (“Skyfall”) and Ciarán Hinds (“First Man”). The family feels quite safe, until a riot, witnessed by Buddy, in which Protestant rioters attack the block seeking to drive out all Catholics. Buddy's family are Protestants, but they resist the hate and violence, as do others on their block.
Billy Clanton (played by Colin Morgan of “Legend”) a local involved in the anti-Catholic riots, pressures Buddy's father into joining the insurrectionists, but he resists, essentially calling Clanton a hoodlum. Clanton calls him “The Lone Ranger.” The threat of violence hangs over Buddy's family.
Buddy's father gets a job offer that enables him to move his family to England, away from the violence, but the rest of the family resists. Moving to England means leaving Buddy's grandparents and other relatives behind, and moving to a place where they might be hated and ostracized because of their accents and people associating them with deadly riots and bombings of the Northern Ireland “Troubles.”
Watching this movie, I kept thinking “You guys need to get out of there. Get out now!” The violence keeps getting closer and closer to the family. Buddy himself gets drawn into a youth gang and ends up in one of the riots, stealing stuff from a local store.
Movie themes permeate “Belfast,” along with the stirring music of Van Morrison (eight of his classic songs spice up the soundtrack). Morrison, a Belfast native himself, also wrote one song especially for this movie. The haunting voice of Tex Ritter, singing “Do Not Forsake Me” as heard in the movie “High Noon,” underscores a dramatic scene as Billy Clanton and Buddy's father confront each other in a life or death situation.
Along with this high stakes drama, Branagh's screenplay is peppered with witticisms, often delivered perfectly by Dench and Hinds, whose characters exude love and wisdom. This is a labor of love and humor. It is a love letter to the movies, as well as a love letter to Branagh's old neighborhood, to Belfast, and to his friends and family. It is a great movie, one of the year's best. It rates an A.
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