Belfast is Branagh's mostly-good dream of a Troubles childhood
[The Oscar thing is on! I’ll be reviewing all the contenders between now and the show; here are links to reviews of Don’t Look Up, Drive My Car, Licorice Pizza, West Side Story, Nightmare Alley, CODA and King Richard, with more to come through March 27.]
When movie stars are nominated for the directing Oscar they have an excellent batting average. I think we can discount Woody Allen’s six losses, because when he started this whole tradition by winning for Annie Hall in 1977, he immediately rose to the rank of auteur (you saw Interiors, right?), notwithstanding that he kept acting in his own movies. It’s not Allen’s performances, such as they are, that keep films like Crimes and Misdemeanors and Hannah and her Sisters afloat. But all the other actor-director nominees, except Ron Howard, kept on starring in movies as well as making them.
And their Oscar records are impressive. Robert Redford and Warren Beatty, whose victories came three and four years after Allen broke the dam, are each one for two, as is Mel Gibson, and Clint Eastwood has gone two out of four. There had only been two single-time nominees who lost — Tim Robbins and Kenneth Branagh — before Branagh was put up for Belfast this year.
I think Branagh’s got a good chance. Belfast has a combination Academy voters love: it plucks the heart-strings as effectively as any piece of junk tear-jerker, but while it may not be a masterpiece, it is definitely not a piece of junk. You can still respect yourself, and the filmmaker, after being moved by it. (It has that in common with Ordinary People, for which Redford won.)
Belfast takes place in 1969, the first year of The Troubles, in a tight-knit working-class community — brick rowhouses with small, brick-enclosed back yards and outdoor loos. (The men apparently sit on the loo just for comfort when having a chat sometimes, which is one of the movie’s many charming details.) The place has a lively and, at first and intermittently thereafter, idyllic street life with kids playing footy, neighbors greeting and jawing, and sometimes a drunk singing “Danny Boy.” The main character is nine-year-old Buddy, the younger of two lads in a Proddy family whose grandparents live ‘round the way and who all get on well with their Catholic neighbors, though they are encouraged to “take a stand” against these by a pair of vicious Red Hands who stream the growing sectarian violence into their lives.
News reports on the radio and television slip in context as needed, sometimes illuminating specific plot points — a report on the beleaguered country’s “highest rate of unemployment in the UK,” for example, helps explain why Buddy’s father keeps going out of town for work as a joiner for long stretches, which exacerbates the tension in his family; his earnings aren’t great, they’re getting drained paying back taxes, and his solution is for the whole family to move (“We can give these boys a better chance than we ever had”), but his wife pleads roots and tradition (“I know nothin’ else but Belfast”).
The father’s frequent absences also increase his wife’s feeling of vulnerability and the boys’ exposure to the rising violence. But the community makes a circle of love in which the real business of life can go on — including, for buddy, juvenile mischief, first love, and family conversations poignant and memorable enough for a son of Belfast to repeat them, perhaps with a little gilding, in a film many years later.
Belfast, which Branagh also wrote, is clearly Branagh’s love song and childhood memoir, and if it were a few ticks cheesier it would have been insufferable. But Branagh has it in hand. He cleverly sticks hard to Buddy’s POV, driving deeper into that perspective at key moments, as when a rioting crowd enters his street and time momentarily freezes while the camera circles him, or when the family goes to see Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and their reaction to the lauded effect of the car going over a cliff and starting to fly is enhanced by astute cutting. (Young Ken appears to have been movie mad.)
This focus replicates the child mind. Branagh sometimes does the Scorsese trick of using object close-ups to set mood, but the effect is mostly achieved by story emphasis; for example, we seldom see the parents affectionate with one another — most of the memories are of arguments, which is definitely a kid thing. We mostly have to work out Pa and Ma’s bond through their devotion to the kids, and the telling fact that their arguments, while fierce, never spin into hateful rage. And The Troubles, though the driver of such plot as there is, disappears entirely from thought whenever Buddy is having his privileged moments. Indeed, the film’s dramatic resolution only makes sense as a child’s way of explaining things to himself — or as an adult trying to make sense of the way he felt as a child.
But we’re also allowed to see a bit beyond Buddy’s perspective, too. My favorite parts of Belfast are the conversations between his flinty but good-humored grandma and her husband, who’s full of good advice on women and bad advice on long division. Actor-directors are always handy with their players, and Jamie Dornan’s true and troubled Pa, Caitriona Balfe’s stressed Ma, and Jude Hill’s chipmunk-cheeked budding Branagh are top-notch. (Good thing for Branagh — some of his dialogue frankly needs their level of salesmanship.) But Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench as the elders stole my heart. Him singing “How to Handle a Woman” to her, and her subtly going for it, is sweet, but them sitting alone talking about their courtship years is something else. You’d never believe anyone could make exchanges like “Did your [heart] ever skip” “Aye, it danced a bloody jig every time you walked in the room” work except perhaps on the musical comedy stage, but these troopers make it sound like Brian bloody Friel.