…there was a tiny child named Kenneth Branagh, but everyone called him Buddy. He was a smarter version of Ralphie from A Christmas Story and even had the same preoccupation with the toys and films of his age, plus he even got to unwrap his fair share of Christmas gifts. He didn’t need Ralphie’s narrator powers because he was perfectly happy talking aloud to anyone who’d listen. He never got in trouble for talking too much, even when he kept pointing out little differences between Catholicism and Protestantism like an ’80s standup comic who’s never heard other comics’ routines and feels like he’s blazing new trails in the field of Just Asking Questions.
Like Ralphie, Buddy was blessed with a loving family. His dad (Jamie “Fifty Shades” Dornan) had a job over in England that kept him busy across the water, but he came home as often as he could afford to. His mom (Outlander star Caitriona Balfe) kept the home fires burning, which could be challenging when taxes came due, or when there were explosions. One specific day in 1969 an unnamed street gang started a very large and frightening riot that caused much destruction and some mostly bloodless bodily harm to their neighbors. The gang leader (Merlin‘s Colin Morgan) wanted Dad to join his gang and gave him the standard “if you’re not with us, you’re against us” speech from the evil gangsters’ playbook. At this point Buddy diverged drastically from Ralphie because can you imagine what if Scut Farkus demanded his Old Man join forces with him? The Old Man probably would’ve stuffed Scut in his furnace just to see if his remains would burn more cleanly than coal. But Christian Grey is not that kind of Old Man.
Like Ralphie, Buddy also had a brother, but no one cared. Much more different: Buddy liked a girl. Catherine (Olive Tennant, li’l daughter of David) was his smartest rival at school, but his family was Protestant and she was Catholic. This schism never ruined conversation between them because kids. He also spent free time with his older cousin Moira (Lara McDowell from Disney’s Artemis Fowl), who taught him juvenile delinquency skills and later joined the big street gang without reading through all the membership requirements. Mostly she was in it for freebies, because shoplifting was much easier after shops had been wrecked by homemade bombs.
Soon the destruction and discomfort became too much for Mom and Dad to forgive and their stiff upper lips hurt from resisting the urge to quiver. Buddy’s family was faced with a hard choice: should they flee Belfast for the relative safety of England, recognizing that sometimes a homeland can stop being “home” no matter how much time and sweat your ancestors have poured into it? Also keeping in mind that Dad just got a promotion and relocation costs just got a lot easier to bear? Or do they stay put, stand their ground, and pray this is one of those movies that ends with Dad defeating the gang single-handedly and saving Ireland as well as Protestantism’s local reputation? The ending will be spoiled for any viewer who pauses to count up how many films in which they’ve ever heard Branagh sporting a thick Northern Irish accent.
The trailer aptly represented the vibe here as Roma minus poetry. Very little visual fanciness is attempted within its black-and-white scheme, which is firmly for nostalgia’s sake. A few selective intrusions of color pop out, most glaringly when the family goes to the theater to catch the far more exciting Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Dick Van Dyke driving his costars off a cliff and onward toward the sky is a vivid burst of the extraordinary into one of the last ordinary moments in their rapidly destabilizing corner of the world. In that moment, escape doesn’t feel like a cheat or an unfair fate.
To his credit, li’l Jude Hill as Buddy is fine for what he does, precociously earnest without being a doe-eyed prop. His surroundings are viewed through a lens of naivete and distanced sentiment, hardly the harrowing historical thriller this might’ve been if Dad had been played by, say, Ray Stevenson or Stephen Rea. The obligatory pop-culture relics are tastefully limited to a few key items (Matchbox! View-Master!) because the family’s situation didn’t lend itself to Pavlovian I-love-the-’60s call-outs or modern product placements posing as same. I’m not convinced Branagh’s goal here is a stinging indictment of Man’s Inhumanity to Man or the agony of arbitrary schisms that separate us all and bring out the worst in us; more like this was his pandemic comfort-art project, the same feeling I got from fellow nominee Anderson’s Licorice Pizza.
I’ve enjoyed several of writer/director Branagh’s past works, going at least as far back as his Hitchcock homage Dead Again, but I had no plans to see Belfast in its initial theatrical run even though I was certain it would show up for Academy Award handouts. Sure enough, here it stood on my Oscar Quest ’22 to-do list. Six months after release it feels even quainter in light of recent horrifying headlines about overseas explosions and murders, albeit for a separate set of reasons. In my case it didn’t help that my showing of Belfast came a few weeks after we’d watched an old DVD of John Boorman’s 1987 drama Hope and Glory, a previous Best Picture nominee (presently streaming nowhere) about a U.K. shattered by wartime in its own backyard, as extracted and relived from the filmmaker’s personal childhood memories. In Boorman’s case the catastrophe was World War II and his vantage point was sometimes candidly disturbing and sometimes inappropriately fun, as boys that age are wont to get up to when their understanding of current events is more limited than their parents’.
Though slight rioting does occur, Branagh’s warmer-‘n’-fuzzier hometown elegy is virtually antiseptic in comparison to Boorman’s, hugging those smiley moments tightly and practically covering Buddy’s eyes with his own hands lest he be exposed to the dark undercurrents all around him. Judging by the truncated cross-section of events here, viewers who never learned much world history in school may come away thinking this is the story of how the IRA lasted all of an hour before they were busted up for good by heroic law enforcement and they all lived happily ever after, The End. And the worst thing that could’ve happened to Buddy is he might’ve been handed a toy gun and shot his eye out.
Meanwhile in the customary MCC film breakdowns:
Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Did I mention Buddy also has grandparents? Ciaran Hinds (Munich, Justice League) was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for a handful of scenes of wizened gregariousness. And thanks to the most unflattering wig ever designed by 1940s witness protection programs, Buddy has no idea his own grandma is the Dame Judi Dench.
How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Belfast end credits, but the final words are a dedication to actor/comedian John Sessions, who died in 2020 after filming his final role in this film, a bit part as Northern Irish actor Joseph Tomelty in a production of A Christmas Carol. Americans have seen Sessions in small parts in The Iron Lady and Gangs of New York, among other works. He was also among the main cast in the first few seasons of Whose Line Is It, Anyway?. As tribute let’s link to the time he appeared on the British game show QI, hosted by Stephen Fry, and shared his fantastic Alan Rickman impression.