Kenneth Branagh has boldly ventured into controversial territory with this deeply personal film, set as riots erupted in his native town. Thus, divisions are inevitable, with those who lament it as a travesty of political reality pitted against others who recognize their own stories in it or simply like it for what it is: a portrait of an ordinary childhood punctuated by extraordinary communal violence is turned upside down.
There is no claim here to offer a political overview. Part of the film’s strength is the way it keeps the focus at a young boy’s level of understanding, so that the betrayal seems inexplicable, the threat always only half seen. As long as nine-year-old Buddy (played by Jude Hill) can take his grandma to the movies to check out exciting new tech releases – which give his imagination a romantic glow that defies the film’s somber palette itself – all is more or less fine right in his world.
Such is childhood; So children could always survive the now terrible circumstances. If Jamie Dornan and Caitríona Balfe seem incredibly glamorous, it’s because there’s Buddy in them; if Ciarán Hinds’ mischievous pop seems incredibly scholarly, it’s because anyone who can do math homework seems like a genius to a little kid who can’t.
Branagh knew he was exposing himself to accusations of sentimentality, and reviewers obliged, but it’s a lazy position. The film is not about remembered blue hills, but gray remembered streets: in its color palette, its pace and the severity of its perspective, it deserves the emotion it evokes from us. It could capitalize on the quaint values of working-class family and community, and pit old-fashioned neighborhood police against the growing lawlessness of the streets in a comic scene where Buddy gets his comeuppance. But there is a greater reality, written across the cramped, scratched face of Judi Dench’s grandma, or overheard through the braces of doors and windows in snippets of adult conversation (“The police won’t protect us. We’ll have to do it ourselves.” ). .
In 98 succinct minutes (beautifully photographed by Haris Zambarloukos), it shows a depressed, monochromatic city where women struggle to put chips on the table and men are forced to find jobs abroad; where a spit-stained preacher pours poison on the heads of his congregation; where neighbors who babysit a little boy are quick to badmouth his mother and friendships between children of different faiths have no future.
It is above all a film about migration: about all that is lost when political circumstances make a home impossible. “When we migrate, we murder those in our lives we leave behind,” wrote Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid about another continent in another time. Buddy and his parents leave Pop in the graveyard and Grandma stands alone in the street, muttering, “Go and don’t look back.”
It’s certainly sad, but the strength of his performances, his eye for the pitfalls of childhood, his understanding of the tragic absurdity of community strife avoids being downright sentimental. In this new moment of loss and mass displacement, Belfast truly deserves to be taken very seriously.