- Kenneth Branagh
- Run Time
- 1 hour and 38 minutes
VP Content Ratings
- Sex & Nudity
- Star Rating
As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side.
The presence of a grandparent confirms that parents were, indeed, little once, too, and that people who are little can grow to be big, can become parents, and one day even have grandchildren of their own. So often we think of grandparents as belonging to the past; but in this important way, grandparents, for young children, belong to the future.
Director/writer Kenneth Branagh joins a long line of filmmakers who find rich treasure in mining their childhood experiences. His new film is based on his memories of his 9th year when, in August of 1969, militant Protestants erupted in anger against their Catholic neighbors. One is tempted to see this as another of the many films about “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland. (See 71, In the Name of the Father, The Informant, or Five Minutes of Heaven.) The destructive civil war between Protestants and Catholics is the milieu, but the story is really about a close-knit family facing adversity and making a decision about whether or not to leave their home for the safety of the children.
The film begins with a colorful Tourist Bureau survey of the charming city and then changes to black and white as Buddy (Jude Hill) is seen enjoying the teeming street life close by his home. Suddenly an angry anti-Catholic mob comes around the corner, shouting and throwing bricks, smashing windows, and setting ablaze a car, which soon explodes. The panicked people start to run. Mothers rush to find their children, Buddy’s Ma (Caitriona Balfe) among them. The aftermath of the senseless violence results in the erection of a barricade of wrecked cars, paving blocks and decrepit furniture and barbed wire blocking one end of the street. A tank and squad of soldiers move through the neighborhood. Guards are stationed at the barricade to check on and control who comes and goes.
The film does not try to explain the ins outs of the history and politics that fuel the violence. Instead, Branagh the writer focuses upon this one Irish Protestant family consisting of Ma (Caitriona Balfe), Pa ((Jamie Dornan), older brother Will (Lewis McAskie), and grandparents’ (Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench). Their story is told from the viewpoint of Buddy, who fondly recalls a favorite saying of Pa’s when they are parting, “Be good son. And if you can’t be good, be careful.” The film is shot from a relatively low angle. Much of the exposition of what is going on outside their home Buddy overhears from the adults—he often is standing around a corner or outside a window where he can listen in. He observes High Noon and The Man Who Shot Liberty Vance through the rails of a banister because these movies are being televised after his bedtime. We do not learn the family member’s names–each goes by the appellation given them by Buddy.
The boy is as closer to his grandparents (he calls them Granny and Pop) than he is to his father, the latter so often away working a construction job in London. The boy often stops by the grandparent’s home after school to talk about his concerns in a candor he finds not possible with his parents. Along with problems with math is the classmate he’s sweet on, Catherine (Olive Tennant). It is because of them that his non-religious father takes the family to church on Sundays, where they are subjected to the fire and brimstone sermons of the minister (Turlough Convery). In the one that we hear, the stern preacher describes life as a road that branches out, one way leading to perdition and the other to salvation. Buddy apparently is very affected by this, the boy creating a drawing of the road and the branches leading away.
It is the movies—at the local theater and on their small black and white TV set—that unites the family, all three generations mesmerized by the colorful stories on the screen. At the theater, these are in color, with Chitty, Chitty Bang Bang especially thrilling them when the magical car appears to be hurtling the heroes to destruction, and then taking flight at the last moment, These short bursts of color stand all the more in contrast to the rest of the film.
Outside the theater lurks danger for the family, and it is Ma who bears the heaviest weight of responsibility for protecting their sons because Pa is away for weeks at a time. It is she who rushes into the street to grab Buddy when the first wave of violence erupts and leaves the neighborhood with many of its windows broken and shops looted. One can spot the Catholic homes because the facades of the row houses have been blackened by the Molotov cocktails hurled against them by the mob. Pa wants to live in harmony with their Catholic neighbors but Billy Clanton (Colin Morgan), a hostile neighbor, angrily demands that he choose sides. Pa talks with the family, suggesting that it is time to leave. Buddy almost has a meltdown at the suggestion that they leave their friends and most of their family—he even has plans to marry a classmate named Catherine, whose attention he has won, thanks to the advice of his grandparents. His drawing of the road branching out becomes his metaphor for the family’s decision making.
The film is rich in family detail and Buddy’s sometimes misadventures, such as his giving in to the demand of an older cousin named Moira (Lara McDonnell) that they steal from a candy store. (One wonders if the looting by the anti-Catholic rioters planted this idea in her mind.) Buddy’s closeness to his grandparents, and their quiet love for each other is beautifully dramatized, often with humor. An example of the latter is when Buddy shares his anxiety about moving and the way new neighbors will not be able to understand them because of their Irish accent. The old man says not to worry, that he has been married to Granny for years but has never understood a word of hers.
Pa and Ma are divided by their differing opinions about leaving Belfast, Ma pointing out how everyone in the neighborhood looks out for each other, something they will lose when they move and settle among strangers. Still. they are deeply in love. No doubt the pair are glamorized because we are seeing them through the loving eyes of Buddy. Pa becomes a marked man by standing up to the anti-Catholic neighbor who threatens him and the family. Buddy apparently sees Pa as the equivalent to the hero of High Noon, one of the Westerns the family had watched on their TV set. In the tense scene in which Pa confronts their hateful neighbor out in the street, we hear (presumably through Buddy’s imagination) the theme song from the movie, with that appropriate line, “…for I must face a man who hates me.” At the reception following a funeral Pa reveals his talent for singing when he dances with Ma and sings to her Love Affair’s hit song “Everlasting Love.”
People of faith might appreciate that the stern minister is present at the reception and seems to be enjoying the festivity. He even offers in his graveside service some positive words, which must have been comforting, the boy remembering them so many years later.
It is good to see Pa teaching tolerance and acceptance to his children, his conviction so strong that he withstands the pressure to join in the persecution of Catholic neighbors, even when threatened with violence himself. That Buddy accepts this we see in the boy’s wooing with flowers Catherine—he eventually reveals that she is Catholic. I am sure that the prophet who wept over Jerusalem because it did not know “the things that make for peace” would approve of this father who had his issues with the church. Christ might well have shed tears over Belfast as well during that sorry time.
This is a film I suspect (and hope) we will hear much about during the Oscar season—not just for directing, but for acting as well. Caitriona Balfe is a revelation to me, as I have not yet seen the her in the TV series Outlander, for which she was nominated for a Golden Globe award. Jamie Dornan as Pa has great rapport with his co-star, and is the incarnation of the man trying to do the right thing when it is dangerous and unpopular to do so (hence the tie-in to High Noon). At the same time, he is deeply concerned for the safety of his family and dares to try to convince his wife that they must uproot and resettle in a distant city. Young Jude Hill, in his debut role as the exuberant and often puzzled son, is an actor whom I hope we will be seeing in many more films. And what a delight are the veteran pair, Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench, portraying the grandparents. Their every word and gesture convey their life-long love and support of one another. Their moments with Buddy are both funny and heartwarming—and in two scenes heart-breaking.
While on the subject of grandparents, I think Fred Rogers would have also loved the scenes of Buddy interacting with his beloved Granny and Pop. I remember well hearing Fred Rogers speak on grandparents when he appeared at Chautauqua Institute and how he personally came down twice from the stage (no, off it, because he was sitting on its rim so as to be closer to the audience) to comfort a grandparent sharing a painful experience. He knew well that in a world where many grandparents were raising the sons and daughters of their children because the parents were incapacitated by drugs or in prison. Even in intact families, parents for various reasons did not have the time or wisdom to deal with their child’s questions and anxieties as Pop and Granny do for Buddy in this film.
The film is deeply personal. specifically, so in regards to its director, and yet universal as well in its theme of debating about leaving one’s homeland. Ireland’s biggest export have been its sons and daughters forced by circumstances to leave the homeland they loved so much, whether famine in the 19th century or sectarian violence in the 20th. Today millions of others, in Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America, are also fleeing want and violence, most of them without the security of the job that Pa has in this film. Thus, this is a good film for families to watch and discuss together. Parents might point out that after Buddy’s family left Belfast, matters grew so hostile that families went into lockdowns similar to our own during the Covid crisis. Back then many parents kept their children indoors to keep them from being shot. The film’s PG-13 rating make it questionable for children under middle school age, but there is much in the film for older children to enjoy and learn from.
I must not close without mentioning how effective the music of another Belfast celebrity is, heard throughout the film. Van Morrison scored Belfast and contributed eight songs, one of them new. The film closes with a highly appropriate one for this particular story. Despite his recent immersion in controversy over the Covid lockdown and conspiracy theory, the songwriter expresses well the intent or message of the film, so I will close with some of the words of “And The Healing Has Begun.” The entire song is about reconciliation between lovers, but the beginning words, supported by the steady beat and a lovely melody, should evoke images from the film:
And we’ll walk down the avenue again
And we’ll sing all the songs from way back when
And we’ll walk down the avenue again
And the healing has begun
And we’ll walk down the avenue in style
And we’ll walk down the avenue and we’ll smile
And we’ll say “baby, ain’t it all worthwhile?”
When the healing has begun
This review is in the November issue of VP along with a set of 10 questions for reflection and/or discussion. If you have found reviews on this site helpful, please consider purchasing a subscription or individual issue in The Store.