Thursday, February 2, 2023

Oscar Film Journal: Belfast (2021)

Rolling into the 2023 Oscar season, I'm back with another Oscar Film Journal entry!

I'm still catching up with a few movies from last year's Oscar season, including Kenneth Branagh's intimate, autobiographical piece Belfast, about a young boy navigating family relationships, peer pressure, his first romantic feelings, and the escalating sectarian Protestant-Catholic war which would come to be known as The Troubles.  When we first meet nine-year-old Buddy, he's playing with his friends in the street, wielding a wooden sword and a trash can lid as a shield, when suddenly a Protestant gang loots his neighborhood, smashing windows and setting a car on fire.  

This opening scene establishes both the film's economy of storytelling and its small-scope look at this world-coming-apart from Buddy's point of view.  We see very little of Northern Ireland's civil unrest through a big-picture lens, instead only catching snippets of news reports, overheard parental conversations, and isolated incidents Buddy sees with his own eyes.  But The Troubles are primarily a backdrop, in front of which the film explores Buddy's close relationship with his grandparents and his older cousin Moira, who turns out to be a bad influence.  There's also his parents' central conflict, whether or not to move out of Belfast and out of harm's way.  Buddy's father is a tradesman who works in England, only coming home every couple weeks to spend time with his family.  His mother raises Buddy and his older brother mostly alone and is so entrenched in their neighborhood and its close friendships she can't imagine leaving Belfast.
Buddy's scenes with his grandparents (effortlessly portrayed by Ciaran Hinds and Judi Dench) are sweet and touching; his grandfather offers pragmatic advice on how to get the cute girl at school to notice him while also improving his grades.  Grandpa is a hopeless romantic and flirts openly with his wife of fifty years as she all but rolls her eyes at him.  Their marriage is uncomplicated in a way that of Buddy's parents is not; his Ma and Pa owe several years in back-taxes and only see each other when Pa is able to travel home.  Pa indulges Buddy and his older brother by taking them to the movies; we see full-color clips of One Million Years B.C. and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang as Buddy's imagination and budding interest in film are stimulated.  Even a live theatrical presentation of A Christmas Carol is given the color treatment; the arts are Buddy's rainbow-hued escape from the grays of his everyday life (Doesn't that ring true for all us cinephiles?).

As for the performances, the entire cast is wonderfully naturalistic.  Caitriona Balfe as "Ma" does much of the heavy lifting without being allowed to steal the movie, as the family's pillar of strength, while Jamie Dornan (of Fifty Shades of Grey fame) embodies the beleaguered father, wanting to be there for his family but needing to be away to provide for them, and facing pressure from an old schoolmate to join the Protestant "cause."  This film could easily have veered into melodrama but deftly avoids those pitfalls.  And of course none of it would work without the prodigious performance by Jude Hill as Buddy.  Onscreen for most of the film's running time, Hill portrays Buddy as a very likable, inquisitive little boy just trying to find his way through childhood.  This is one of the more convincing child performances I've seen in some time.  

But maybe the true star of this film is its cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos, who employs rich, Expressionist black & white but also uses wide-angle lenses to make this tiny housing block feel like Buddy's whole world, the way our memories of childhood homes artificially expand their size and scope.  The windows in Buddy's house and in that of his grandparents are seemingly always open, creating a welcoming and almost idyllic feel during dialogue-heavy scenes.  These are people of very modest means but their sense of community is warm and strong, and the film's master shots are frame in such a way as to invite us into their homes.

Belfast is one of Kenneth Branagh's strongest directorial efforts, finding a delicate balance between being a simple coming-of-age story and a heavy historical piece.  At no time is his sincerity in question, this film is clearly a labor of love, it's angular visual composition and true-to-life performances providing an immersive, open-window glimpse into the world that was home to Branagh's formative years.

I give Belfast ***1/2 out of ****.

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