Synopsis: Boy grows up in Belfast during The Troubles between Catholic and Protestant factions. (Streaming on Amazon Prime as of April 7, 2022)
Ah, to be a well-loved, well-fed baby. Baby is oblivious to much. Whether they live in Paris, Vancouver or Belfast matters little to them. Eiffel Tower? Not impressed; Baby busy watching the wind kick up some leaves. Enjoying a stroll in Stanley Park? Who knows; Baby is in a trance, gumming their hand. Concerned about the Troubles breaking in Belfast? Baby is not; unless noise from riots disturbs their nap. Not so with baby’s older siblings.
Belfast is a child’s POV of life in the Northern Ireland city in 1969/70. Buddy (Jude Hill), a lad looking to be about ten years old, has been born and raised in Belfast where he lives with his Ma (Caitriona Balfe), Pa (Jamie Dornan) and older brother, Will ( Lewis McAskie). Granny (Judi Dench) and Pop (Ciaran Hinds) are close at hand, as are plenty of aunts, uncles and cousins in the neighborhood. Unlike Baby who can happily spend their days babbling and attempting to pull off their socks, Buddy is at an age where he is old enough to be trying to puzzle out how the grown-up world works while engaging in the joys and perils of the kid world.
Buddy attends school with a mix of Protestant and Catholic kids; his family is Protestant. He has a crush on a classmate and contrives to catch her eye. The teacher has a system of seating that is based on the kids’ test scores. She actually calls out the scores and has the low scoring kids sit in the back! I guess this is supposed to motivate kids to study–not much help if a kid is learning disabled. Anyway, Buddy’s crush is a high achiever and he wants to sit near her. He says he wishes she would get dumber like him so she can move back to his row.
Buddy has the run of the neighborhood and happily spends hours playing outside with friends. He also gets roped into his older cousin Moira’s schemes, including shoplifting from the sweets shop. But she’s aggravated when he gets flustered and swipes taffy instead of chocolate.
When Buddy’s parents are occupied with work and household tasks, his grandparents (Judi Dench and Ciaran Hinds) are always pleased to visit. Pop polishes old saddles while they talk and Granny takes him on her errands. The grandparents keep Buddy amused as they trade aphorisms and recollections while downing their tea. (Maybe Dame Judi held court during breaks, recounting meeting the Queen.)
A word about Buddy’s parents: they are the best-looking couple in Belfast. Pa (Jamie Dornan) is a joiner, which might be another word for male model. He does go over to England for weeks at a time for work. Probably to model the eras bellbottoms and groovy polyester shirts.
Ma (Caitríona Balfe) looks like a model too with her hair tousled about her pretty face and mini dresses that compliment her toned legs. Turns out that both Cat & Jamie are former models IRL. I wonder if director Kenneth Branagh issued a non-models need not apply notice to casting agents.
Buddy’s parents are contemplating leaving the Emerald Isle for work, just like Bono and Ruth Negga would. They don’t want to leave their relatives, but they have pressing reasons besides employment. This was the beginning of The Troubles that would last for twenty years in Northern Ireland. The Troubles sounds so innocuous, like there were disagreements over the origin stories of leprechauns. But no, the conflict was over discrimination against Catholics and Northern Ireland either staying part of the UK or uniting with Ireland. Sectarian violence between majority Protestants and minority Catholics would claim thousands of lives before the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
Recently, Northern Ireland has seen a boost in tourist interest since Game of Thrones filmed there, taking advantage of the country’s moody weather. For the most part, Dublin still gets the lion’s share of attention as the Irish city, stomping ground of literary great, James Joyce (I still mean to read Ulysees–possibly), and Ireland’s first woman president, Mary Robinson (greatly modernizing Ireland’s socio-political landscape.) Dublin gets recognition as the home of Trinity College and Guinness Brewery too. Hopefully, Northern Ireland tourism focus groups are finding that memory is fading on Belfast as where the Titanic was built and a center of rioting and bombings during The Troubles. Uh, sorry for bringing it up. Back to the movie…
Belfast opens with a shocking re-creation of a riot. Some Protestant hooligans disrupt a quiet day when they march down Buddy’s home street, hollering curses at Catholics to get the f*** out before vandalizing homes of Catholics. Buddy is out playing war games when the violence erupts. The poor kid is frozen in place and family heroics will be required.
Over the weeks that follow, Buddy tries to figure out what the actual difference is between Catholics and Protestants. Everyone seems to look and act the same. A cousin schools him: Catholics have names like Sean and Patrick. What about Morris? the boy asks. I know! I will tell you, Buddy. Morris is a cat name.
Thankfully, most of Buddy’s days are not dominated by having to navigate rioters and looters. On peaceful days when his dad is back home from work abroad, the family, with the grandparents in tow, go to the cinema. Buddy and his brother seem to favor love the fantasy and adventure movies. And at home, when the parents argue over whether to leave Belfast, Buddy blocks out the noise by getting lost in the Westerns on TV.
All of the commotion of daily life and Buddy’s active imagination swirl about him and lift him up. In one lovely scene, the boy and his granny take in a theater performance of A Christmas Carol. The movie is shot in crisp black and white, but Buddy’s awe transforms the scene onstage into living color.
Ah, but time marches on and Buddy’s kid world gets pushed aside by the grown-up world. And much has changed in fifty years: the European Union, Brexit, representation in The Great British Bakeoff and Derry Girls. But whether they be Irish or British (both?), babies remain focused on the essentials: a full tummy, warm cuddles and incoherent babbling.
P.S. Writer-director Kenneth Branagh’s experiences growing up in Belfast informed Belfast. Actors Caitriona Balfe, Jamie Dornan, Ciaran Hinds hail from Belfast as well. Selected songs are from Van Morrison, also of Belfast. Btw, there is some controversy about Morrison, as he’s campaigned against COVID vaccination. Hmm, I would’ve preferred Snow Patrol.
PPS Awarded Best Original Screenplay, Kenneth Branagh 94th Academy Awards, 2021 films (broadcast in 2022). And Outstanding British Film at the 75th BAFTAs.