Much of "Belfast" is set within one small street - occupied by both Protestants and Catholics in an Irish city dogged by rioting in the late 60s. Through the movie, this street becomes a metaphor for the rest of the city - the people who live there embody its routine, rituals, and rifts. For much of the movie, the street is barricaded on either end in an attempt to prevent rioting. Within these confines, we see a jolly and cordial people going about their daily business. Everyone knows everyone and no passerby gets to walk on without hearing an affable greeting. After riots that damage much of the street's homes, the residents bandy together to clean the mess up - their spirit is undiminished.
On this street lives a working class family that we get to meet through the eyes of its younger child, Buddy. Buddy goes to primary school, has a crush on the girl who is the number one in Math, loves to spend time with his grandpa and granny, and wants to be in a school gang. "Belfast" is the story of Buddy's childhood - one that is charming on the surface but surrounded on the perimeter by prolonged strife and potential doom. Just like the street Buddy lives on, and Belfast itself.
The movie follows Buddy and, as is the case with kids, finds itself doing profound exploration and discovery - one that is all perceived through the innocence and stark purity of a nine year old's world vision. Primarily, "Belfast" seeks to ask the perpetual question - What makes a place one's home? Is it the place? The people? The relationships involved? Or is it one's intrinsic filter that embraces a place and its people as their own, despite whatever practical flaws involved? Especially, when the flaws include the prospect of violence and civil unrest. Young Buddy also seems to question the reasons for this violence, or in more intimate terms, what it means to be good or bad or why one has to be either.
Jude Hill is a terrific fit as Buddy, a bubbling bundle of charm, curiosity, and harmless mischief. Any childhood is only as good as the parenting involved - Jamie Dornan and Caitriona Balfe turn in splendid acts as Buddy's Pa and Ma, defiant about giving their kids a peaceful childhood that doesn't rob them of freedoms. Ciaran Hinds and Dame Judi Dench provide excellent supporting anchors to this central family. The movie is a semi-autobiographical take by writer-director Kenneth Branagh, who manages to stay away from overt nostalgia in service of a beautiful narrative. Haris Zambarloukos' black and white cinematography distills an astute clarity - simple and effective, all set to Van Morrison's punchy soundtrack.
Looming over everything in "Belfast" is an inevitable question - can one leave home behind in pursuit of a better life? Will they ever have a home then - finding it hard to assimilate in an alien territory? Or losing one's ability to return home, stranded in the tides of time? At one point in the movie, Dench's character says that there are no roads from Belfast to a promised Shangri-La, a land with the possibilities of paradise. As its closing frames say, "Belfast" maybe the story of those who found those roads, those who haven't, and those who were lost. It is also a wonderful look at those who are making that journey.
"Belfast" is out in theaters now.
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