Belfast remembers family unity during troubled times
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Kenneth Branagh wrote and directed Belfast, a new film in theaters dramatizing a year from his childhood. It’s not the history or landmarks of Northern Ireland’s capital city that loom large in the famed actor’s memory, though. Branagh pays homage to his family, Protestants in a mostly Protestant neighborhood, who loved each other and defended their Catholic neighbors at a time when politically motivated violence filled the streets.
Belfast (rated PG-13 for strong language and some violence) opens in the turbulent summer of 1969. But Branagh tells the story through the innocent eyes of 9-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill) and buoys the soundtrack with upbeat tunes by Belfast-born rocker Van Morrison. In keeping with the film’s perspective, viewers know Buddy only by his pet name and his parents as Pa (Jamie Dornan) and Ma (Caitríona Balfe). Buddy often visits Pop (Ciarán Hinds) and Granny (Judi Dench), who spend hours doting on him—and stealing every scene they’re in.
At school, Buddy has a crush on a brainy classmate. Higher math scores earn front-row seats, so he studies with Pop—and gets love advice—to win a place next to the girl. But it’s TV and movies that capture Buddy’s imagination more than anything else. Branagh makes this point by shooting Belfast in black-and-white, with the exception of an intensely colorful scene from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. He also intersperses violence outside Buddy’s house with clips from Star Trek and John Wayne movies that Buddy is watching inside. (“Is everybody in this country kill crazy?” James Stewart’s character shouts in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.) To a child, the difference between reality and fiction isn’t always clear.
Buddy’s parents, however, make sure he learns the difference between right and wrong. His family doesn’t join Protestant gangs attacking Catholic homes and businesses. Instead, Buddy witnesses Pa stand up to a gang leader pressuring him to join in the religious “cleansing” of the neighborhood. (Viewers see many of the adult interactions from Buddy’s vantage point—distant and almost out of earshot.) And when an older girl strong-arms Buddy into looting a Catholic grocer, Ma marches him right back into the midst of the chaos to return the box of Omo laundry detergent he stole. Their family’s financial struggles don’t give them license to take what’s not theirs.
Buddy’s most frightening moments seem to come at church. His spiritual upbringing consists of weekly rants from a perspiring, pulpit-pounding pastor who presses his parishioners to make a “fork-in-the-road” choice between eternal bliss and everlasting torment. Buddy struggles to make sense of it, but gets no help from his parents, who discount Christianity’s value. That’s the one sad part of a film warmly remembering a family’s unity and courage.
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