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Review of Oscar-nominated ‘Belfast’ directed by Kenneth Branagh
‘BELFAST’ is currently nominated as Oscar best picture. Written and directed by British actor-director Kenneth Branagh, it is set during the time of The Troubles, also known as the Northern Ireland Conflict, between Protestants and Catholics that started in August, 1969 and ended in 1998 with the Good Friday Agreement.
There have been many films about The Troubles like “The Crying Game”, An Everlasting Piece”, “Bloody Sunday”, “50 Dead Men Walking” and “Hidden Agenda” with Frances McDormand. But “Belfast” is Branagh’s own take about that period told from the viewpoint of his alter-ego, Buddy (Jude Hill), a 9-year old boy who loves movies and lives in a mixed neighborhood where Catholics and Protestants live together.
Shot in black and white, “Belfast” begins in 1969 with Buddy and other kids playing in the streets. Then there’s a riot with angry men throwing molotov cocktails, all seen through Buddy’s eyes.
Their previously peaceful life is shattered. Buddy’s family is Protestant. His dad (Jamie Dornan of “Fifty Shades” series) works in England and goes home to Belfast only on weekends.
He lives with his mom (Caitriona Balfe, an Irish model-actress best known for the hit TV series “Outlander”) and older brother Will (Lewis McAskie.) They live in a quiet neighborhood of rowhouses where children can play freely in the streets. Buddy is also very close to his grandma (Judi Dench) and grandpa (Ciaran Hinds), who have a great influence in his life.
Their place is predominantly Catholic and although his dad doesn’t want to get involved in the political conflict as he has pacifist views, some local thugs want to extort money from him allegedly for his family’s own protection.
The film is actually a series of vignettes about their family and their Irish community. His dad eventually decides that the safest move for their family is to transfer to England but it’s not that easy as it would mean they have to leave their relatives in Belfast.
Since this is a coming of age movie, it shows us Buddy’s first love with his classmate (Olive Tennant) and how they collaborate on a school project. It’s his grandpa who teaches him to court a girl while his grandma is reacting in the background. They are clearly Buddys’ role models for love between a couple and there’s a touching scene where his grandpa reminiscences about the first time he saw his wife and how their love for each other has not diminished through the years.
“Belfast” is shot mostly in black and white, but there are scenes that show color. The film starts showing Belfast as it is in the present then it dissolves to black and white as the story goes into the past. Buddy and his folks are fond of going to the movies so there are film excerpts of the movies they watch in the theater, like “One Million Years B.C.” with Rachel Welch and “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” with Dick Van Dyke.
Other Hollywood movies shown are “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” and the classic western “High Noon”. There’s also a color sequence showing a live performance of the classic play “A Christmas Carol” that hints where Branagh’s life long fascination with the theatre started.
He also pays homage to hit Irish musician Van Morrison and the film’s soundtrack features a lot of his songs that helps establish the period. Branagh has made hit commercial films like 2011’s “Thor” and 2015’s “Cinderella”, which are both well made spectacular fantasies.
“Belfast” is Branagh’s most personal film and he wants it to be a crowd pleaser. The movie reminds us of other stories about a boy and growing up, like “Hope and Glory” (1987) by John Boorman and “Empire of the Sun” by Steven Spielberg, both of which are set in World War II.
“Belfast” is quite charming but there are other more affecting coming-of-age films set in a past era with tot stars, like “Stand By Me”, “The 400 Blows”, “To Kill a Mockingbird”, “Forbidden Games”, “My Life as a Dog”, “Cinema Paradiso” (with its great score by Enno Morricone), and even our very own, “Magnifico”.