Knowing about ‘The Troubles’ will help you consume Belfast (2021) in a much better manner. This knowledge will help you understand the emotions the characters experience. If you are aware of Kenneth Branagh and his story, you will get a better understanding of why he made this highly personal, tightly edited film and shared it with the world in black and white. Branagh and his family left Belfast to escape ‘The Troubles’. However, he reportedly said, “I feel Irish. I don’t think you can take Belfast out of the boy.”
As time passed by, there were always three sets of people. The ones who stayed, the ones who left, and the ones who got lost. All three groups would have experienced something with respect to the city. Branagh’s original writing permitted his characters to be able to grow into their roles and enabled them to give the audience a convincing glimpse of which set they represented. It is clear that Branagh’s film is an ode to the city; to what it is now, all the way to what it once was over half a century ago where families of different sects of Christianity lived amidst ‘The Troubles’ and ‘The Cause’.
The ode to the city and the emotions come to life through the exceptionally acted characters. Belfast (2021) focuses on Buddy (Jude Hill), and his Pa (Jamie Dornan), Ma (Caitriona Balfe), Pop (Ciaran Hinds), and Granny (Judi Dench). Other characters like Buddy’s brother Kenny, Moira, and Catherine have their own arcs. The film commences with shots of present-day Belfast (in color) and then progresses up to a wall. It is as the camera goes over the wall; we get taken into a monochromatic world where man had just journeyed to the moon. In this world, something devoid of screens, we can see a community living in harmony with children playing football (with a painted goalpost on a wall). What would these innocent ones know?
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At this point, Branagh permits the rioting to enter with an arc shot around Buddy, conveying the drastic change in mood. From leisure and joy to tension and trepidation, things changed fast during ‘The Troubles’. Van Morrison’s Oscar-nominated Down to Joy gives way to the diegetic sound that enhances the cinematic feel of the emotion change. It shows how some individuals grow up way faster due to circumstances that blow up right before them.
Judi Dench as Granny has minor touches that really catch your eye thanks to the black and white. Her scenes with Ciaran Hinds are the reason she surprisingly secured the Oscar nomination over Caitriona Balfe. These interactions at their home are an example of two veteran actors reacting to the opposite actor rather than acting per what is told to them. A scene where Granny reminisces about cinema and her days, has joy oozing out of her eyes, her lips, and every wrinkle. Her grieving tears and steely goodbye showcase a range of emotions for the ones who stayed.
Meanwhile, 11-year-old Jude Hill’s Buddy, the heart and soul of Belfast (2021), radiated innocence. From wanting to be with a catholic, to wanting to have his Pop and Granny be with him, he ensured to say his prayers and request the same from God. He asks if it is wrong to like someone who isn’t the same. Belfast offers a timely message to that query. Balfe had two standout scenes in Belfast that drove home her attachment to Belfast, but permitted the audience to see her internal strife as she tried to balance her duties as a wife and a mother. As Ma, she brings a sense of calm and her son’s close brush with members of ‘The Cause’ is what tests her loyalty to Belfast. After all, as her friend said, she has to think about her children.
Haris Zambarloukos’ camera lingers on the locations and the characters. It moves to different locations to frame repeat actions, thereby ensuring things don’t get mundane. His dizzying fluid circular shot to signal the arrival of the protesters is quite memorable as well. Also, his brilliant framing of Ma and Pa dancing to Everlasting Love is noteworthy. Morrison’s music is yet another example of Branagh’s tribute to the city as the composer emerged during that time. The elimination of color helps enhance the actors’ emotions. It also completes a successful journey of the audience from the present day to the 60s black and white charm.
Also Read: Roma (2018): Experiencing Spirituality Through Cinema
The inclusion of the cinema is another thing that succeeded here. While today, many cinephiles may sit back and watch a car plummet over a cliff, it wasn’t the case when moving pictures were younger. The film that was shown in this sequence will delight film historians as the date was spot on. Furthermore, audiences may appreciate it as a subtle nod to Judi Dench’s character of M, as said film was Ian Fleming’s brainchild.
Branagh gives a nod to classic cinema with clips of ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and High Noon. While aiming to pay tribute to the communities in Ireland, Belfast also pays tribute to the community in cinema. The community feeling of watching a film has vanished with isolated views being the norm. The film’s timeliness in the year after corona was at its peak and the joy on all the leads’ faces, especially Buddy, can ignite that spark among viewers to return to consuming moving pictures in the traditional format.
A glance at the synopsis of Belfast (2021) would imply that it is going to be slow. It may even remind you of Roma. Fortunately, it isn’t, as Branagh’s writing blends in humor and permits music to punctuate the drama. Compared to Roma, Belfast is compact and has a bit more for the masses. The lack of a wee one-inch barrier needed to understand what’s being said in this film (should you have no qualms about deciphering the Irish accent) is another factor that will motivate audiences to give it a chance. Belfast is something that you need to watch at least once.