Patron Pick – Belfast

This special reward is available to Patreon patrons who pledge at the $10 or $20 monthly levels. Each month those patrons will pick a film for me to review. If they choose, they also get to include some of their own thoughts about the movie. This Pick comes from Matt Harris.

Belfast (2021)
Written & Directed by Kenneth Branagh

The Troubles. For the people of Northern Ireland, that phrase is a reminder of a brutal period of thirty years where communities were at war. While the factions were referenced in the media as Catholic and Protestant, there was much more complexity to what was happening. This irregular war came out of unionists & loyalists (Protestants) wanting to remain as part of the United Kingdom. The nationalists & republicans (Catholics) sought to reunite with Ireland to form a single nation. That’s the basic explanation, but I could write a whole book about the details and go deeper and how the entire thing goes back to the early 17th century. Many people have already written those books. 

Belfast takes place in 1969 when the first riots formally set off The Troubles. Buddy is a nine-year-old boy in a working-class Ulster Protestant family. His Pa (Jamie Dornan) works in England while Ma (Caitríona Balfe), older brother Will, Granny (Judi Dench), and Pop (Ciaran Hinds) live in Belfast. Buddy’s street gets attacked during the August riots by Protestants. They, of course, spare the home of Buddy and the other Protestants while smashing the windows of Catholics and attacking any they find out on the street. The residents work together after using cobblestones to create a barricade on one end of the road. Pa returns home but clashes with the sectarian Billy Clanton (Colin Morgan). The family’s finances require that Pa leave again, and he does so under duress, worried his sons will be recruited into the violence by Billy and other sectarian groups on the street.

I think the topic is something that would make a great film, but I do not think Kenneth Branagh delivers on that promise. Branagh has been a director that consistently delivers less than stellar films. It can be seen in his Thor movies and the recent Hercule Poirot movies. His emphasis is on making feel-good entertainment for mass audiences. Nothing wrong with that, plenty of filmmakers have made their bread and butter on such work. However, if you are going to tackle a topic as weighty and important as The Troubles, you damn well not make such a trite, simplistic film. 

Instead of contextualizing The Troubles, Branagh leans into feelings of nostalgia to obfuscate what is going on. Yes, the story is meant to be seen through the eyes of a child during this time, but it completely ignores the fact that children did get pulled into the ongoing violence and certainly had an understanding of the stakes. Buddy is unbelievably oblivious to what is going on in his city and is just pulled through scenes by other characters. Branagh also shows no respect for the enormity of why this fight happened, with a character stating it’s all about “bloody religion.” While the groups used religious sects to name themselves, the conflict had little to do with religion and was an ethno-nationalist war. 

Leaning on Buddy’s perspective serves as a crutch to undercut the seriousness of what was happening. It also serves the purpose of mythologizing the director himself. We have multiple scenes of Buddy attending the cinema where the films he watches are the only real presence of color in an otherwise black & white film. This is the sort of maudlin material I’ve come to expect from Branagh, a toothless story delivered with a seeming disinterest in narrative complexity of any type. The soundtrack also drips with tunes by Irish artists of the era, chiefly Van Morrison. 

I thought a lot about Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma while watching Belfast. Both are based on memories of the filmmaker’s childhood at a time when there was great social conflict. While Branagh chooses to center his story on his own, very rose-colored reimagining of the era, Cuaron focuses his story on his family’s housekeeper. The stark violence of what was happening in Mexico City never feels obscured. I recall the scene where the characters shop at a furniture store, and the government’s violence against a student group spills into the establishment. It’s this reminder that no matter where you went, it was hard to live in peace. Belfast has a schism through its center, wanting to present The Troubles with a graveness while also trying to say Buddy’s life was a constant childhood wonder. 

The character of Billy Clanton is way too convenient a villain and allows Branagh to not deal with the overarching problems happening in Northern Ireland. It’s just this bad guy, is all, nothing to worry about after he’s rounded up and arrested. I wish I could say I expected better from Belfast, but nope, it pretty much hit the target of what a Branagh film is. It’s a palatable piece of fluff that doesn’t amount to much at the end other than looking very pretty.

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