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'Belfast': A Vision of Childhood and Conflict, in Black, White and Gray

November 19, 2021 | By

The coming-of-age film Belfast -- written, produced and directed by Kenneth Branagh -- is a semi-autobiographical look at the filmmaker's own childhood.

Branagh was born in the Northern Ireland city of Belfast in 1960 to working-class parents. At the age of 9, he left with his family for England to escape "the Troubles."

The ongoing conflict between Catholics (the objects of overt prejudice and discrimination in Northern Ireland) and Protestants broke into open warfare in the late 1960s and didn't really come to an end until the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

Although Branagh learned a proper British accent to blend in with his new schoolmates, he once said, "I feel Irish. I don't think you can take Belfast out of the boy" -- and this film is evidence of that.

Belfast also features music by city native Van Morrison, including eight classic songs and a new song he wrote for the film.

A Boy's World

In the opening scene of Belfast, a mother (Caitríona Balfe) calls out for her 9-year-old son, “Buddy!” (Jude Hill), and he dutifully races in from playing outside. It's a sweet reminder of the age before texting.

Before Buddy arrives at his home, however, a marauding gang of Protestants storms the family’s street and loots the homes of Catholics. The Protestant family finds itself caught in the crossfire.

In one of the next scenes, Buddy and his older brother, Will (Lewis McAskie) absorb a fire-and-brimstone sermon from their local minister (Turlough Convery). There’s a good road to everlasting life with the Lord and a bad road to eternal pain in Hell.

Some may find the minister’s style off-putting, but within the context of sectarian violence, it’s exactly what the two boys need to hear.

Other forces also shape the boys' character.

The Good

Pa (Jamie Dornan) plays a good father on every account imaginable, almost as if the filmmaker read a litany of St. Joseph and built his characterization around it.

Pa protects his family from the wolves attempting to recruit his sons into the anti-Catholic gang. Pa leads his family in discerning whether to stay in their hometown or emigrate to somewhere in the Commonwealth.

Pa even assures his family’s faith practice, although mostly at the behest of his mother (Judi Dench). His only flaw is that he must work far from home in England, but his wife raises the boys well in his absence.

The Bad

One of the problems of some modern movies are the overwritten and, thus, overly complex characters. You don’t know quite whom to be rooting for.

Belfast avoids this pitfall by refusing to glamorize the gangster life, embodied by the film’s chief villain, a gang leader (Colin Morgan).

The film is honest by depicting that poor, impressionable young boys and girls might be lured into the lifestyle, but clearly shows it as something best avoided. Again, Pa provides mantra for Buddy: “Be good. And if you can’t be good, be careful.”

The Beautiful

Pop (Ciarán Hinds), grandfather of the family, also provides nuggets of truth for Buddy. A retired coal miner with failing health, he assures Buddy wherever his family ends up, “he will be looking after him. Granny will be looking after him. Pa will look after him. Ma will. Older brother. Aunt and uncle…”

It’s a beautiful piece of screenwriting where the actual lines delivered by the character assume the literary device (alliteration) of what’s meant to be taken in thematically: a litany of saints and souls.

The Beautiful Is Also in the Filmmaking

Shot in black and white, quite frankly, Belfast looks gorgeous. But the genius of the cinematography choice is less about aesthetics and more about infusing morals.

The family watches entertainment together: Jimmy Stewart westerns on the big screen, Star Trek on the telly, and A Christmas Carol rendering at the local theater. Pop culture plays a small part in forming character, too, encouraging us to be better, kinder and fairer, especially when we differ in creed from our neighbor.

The characters of Belfast, pictured in gray tones, see entertainment in full color. For us, coming in from a world full of color, seeing this splendid film in black and white is a reminder that our moral compass comes from beyond ourselves.

A priest or minister would say from “God.” A great filmmaker might say, from “movie magic.”


Image: Focus Features

Click here to visit Father Vince Kuna’s IMDB page.

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