Reviewed for Shockya.com & BigAppleReviews.net, linked from Rotten Tomatoes by Harvey Karten
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Screenwriter: Kenneth Branagh
Cast: Jude Hill, Jamie Dornan, Caitriona Balfe, Jude Hill, Judi Dench, Ciarán Hinds
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 11/27/21
Opens: November 12, 2021
The big question raised by “Belfast” is: when times are rough, when your life is in danger because of where you live, why don’t you get the hell out? For the Jews living in Germany during the 1930s, exiting the country was not easy. Some were afraid to give up their wealth. Some others considered themselves “too old to move,” whatever that means. Those who were prepared to give up their old lives could not easily enter another country. Go from Germany to Eastern Europe? Poland was no Shangri-la for Jews. And most of Western Europe was already occupied by the Nazis. The U.S. under FDR was not eager to issue visas, and Jews in ships like the St. Louis were turned right back to Germany.
When Catholics and Protestants were at one another’s throats during the 1960s, the Catholics claiming that they were oppressed by the British government which favored Protestants for jobs, Catholics could have gone to Ireland right next door. Protestants could set up residence anywhere in England, which was their country, so there would be no need for visas. But the Branagh family—this is, after all, a memoir by writer-director Kenneth Branagh of the time he was nine years old in 1969—there was a split. Buddy (Jude Hill as the young Kenneth Branagh) would not think of moving. Normally a stable, intelligent lad, he is willing to put up with the occasional bombings by the Irish Republic Army, which sought independence for Northern Ireland and perhaps annexation to the Irish Free State. His friends are in Belfast and so was classmate and love interest, Catherine (Olive Tennant), who goes to his school and sits near him in class. He is also undeterred by a Protestant gang that tries to get Buddy’s dad (Jamie Dorman) to join them in causing havoc to Catholic residences. His mother (Caitriona Balfe) says she knows nothing outside of Belfast, that if the family moved to Sydney, Australia, they would be laughed at because of their accent (strange since so many ethnic Irish live downunder). Ditto England. Only his father, who works construction in England and comes home easily is ready to ship the family out.
This is Kenneth Branagh’s seeing everything through his eyes at the age of nine. Buddy is well liked by the folks in the neighborhood who say hi to him regularly. He returns the greeting remembering to say each neighbor’s name as in “Hi Mr. West.” Kids don’t do that anymore, do they? Buddy loves his grandparents (Ciarán Hinds and Judy Dench), the latter given over to fire and brimstone religion, the former dying from a lung problem created when he mined coal. Buddy’s grandpa gives the boy advice especially about how to win friends and influence people, especially girls. Can you blame Buddy for throwing a tantrum when da insists on moving out?
The story is told through mostly black-and-white imagery, better to capture the feeling of the period, with color taking over during the high points in Buddy’s life. And no point could be higher for a kid who later would spend his life writing, directing, and acting in movies than each time he visited the cinema. His attention is rapt. He is able to repeat the key song in “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” and he warns granny not to talk in the theater. The songs by Van Morrison, when songs were really songs, adds greatly to the 1960s feeling.
When Buddy says goodbye to people he knew for his entire life, he forges a memory in all of us in the audience who at one time had to leave everything behind and enter a life where everything is new. Jude Hill, who was ten years old at the time of the filming, delivers a remarkable debut, able to convey emotions from sadness to ecstasy without a stumble. At the time of this writing, Gold Derby, a website that predicts awards, is betting on “Belfast” to be the winner of Best Picture among scores of awards groups as well as the major ones, the Academy and the Golden Globes.
97 minutes. © 2021 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – B+
Acting – A-
Technical – A-
Overall – B+