As Lillian Gish says at the end The Night of the Hunter, “Children are Man at his strongest. They abide, and they endure.” You could say a child’s innocence is their best momentary defense — their inability to contextualize horrors, to have something to put them up against, is what gets them through. The process of learning all things for the very first time, the ABCs and the 123s of existence, forces an immediate experiential understanding. You need to have one “This is how it is,” and then another, and then another, to truly get some concept of this is how it is. And then, from there, of “That is how it could be.” So, yes, children endure, because they don’t know any better. Until they do know better, anyway, and then it’s Innocence Lost O’Clock.
Narrowing his scope way, way down from the Marvel bombast of Thor and his movie-star-drunk Agatha Christie adaptations, Kenneth Branagh’s autobiographical Belfast, easily his strongest film since his Hamlet in 1996 (if not ever), begins with that exact alarm bell ringing for Buddy (Jude Hill). In its opening scene we see him happily play-fighting in the streets with his friends when, wham and bam, the very real fighting of the world suddenly explodes all around him. It turns out this is the Irish summer of 1969, and “The Troubles,” the 30-year conflict between Protestants and Catholics that will come to devour and define this place and this time, are just, right here and right now, beginning. We watch it here, immediate, imprinting itself across Buddy’s face—his smile stunned, sliding into terror as he stumbles home and straight under the kitchen table. There’s no looking back. And the remainder of the film grapples with this annihilation of Eden from the perspective of an adorable bug named Buddy down on the ground, dodging all the big people’s footfalls—his Ma (Caitriona Balfe) and his Pa (Jamie Dornan), his own Adam and Eve already halfway out of the Garden, a trail of apples at their backs.
Of course, it doesn’t have to be a decades-long religious conflict that even adults have trouble wrapping their heads around that will find children cluelessly maneuvering through the minefields, happily picking daisies out from the cracks of history’s cold cement. I, as I’m sure many of you do too, look back on my own childhood with the great good gift of retrospect, and I wonder how the heck I survived half-sane (a generous assessment, to be sure) all of the abuse and poverty and mental illness that were shrieking all around me. Little ones just find their ways, and Branagh the filmmaker and movie-lover unsurprisingly gives a lot of credit to the movies themselves for giving these dark days of his some sparkle. The steely grays give way to technicolor sheen; like Glinda’s bubble from Oz they drift by, all possibility.
And so as Belfast spins Branagh’s own small memories of classmate crushes and the like into cinema, we see Buddy being formed (and informed) by these stories he sees. Magical and colorful interludes involving Star Trek and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and High Noon fly off the screen and begin to infect the very retelling. A riot in which Buddy finds himself sidesteps into a strange and sudden gunslinger adjacent goof, with the crowds separating and taking sides. Never mind the slight tonal awkwardness of it—there’s truth to be had in a kid’s clumsy interpretation of unfathomable events. The world stage at this age is only a city block or two big, and we have to fill in the spaces with the cardboard moon rocks of movie planets and the white-hat black-hat codes of conduct that still manage to make some sense. When Ma and Pa fight tax-talk against the kitchen sink it’s one thing, but when the dancing and singing breaks out, just you forget about it—it becomes true sparkling movie-star mega-watts filtered down onto our little eyes.
If one’s fortunate enough to turn their own foundational troubles into this sort of large popular art, so remains their right. Some will probably fault Branagh for over-sentimentalizing his nostalgic eye backward, but I think he reins it in (more than I anticipated he would, anyway). The personal nature of this thrums through; his usual bag of tics, often so slick, fall mostly off. The Van Morrison of it all is ladled on a little heavily, but it’s offset by the marvelous stable of actors he gathers up here and rightly trusts to measure out the mixture of purposefully sugary with wisely, smartly tart. Consider the grand Dame Judi Dench with her sly Cheshire smile, who gives Buddy’s loving Granny just the precise dose of reserve to stand alongside her natural warmth. Her work will be fully emotionally reeling to any of us who cherished our grandmother’s hugs over all others. (Oh reader, did she make me sob.)
Pay attention too to how forcefully Branagh allows Ma, in a killer turn from Balfe, to be disastrously and plainly wrong for the majority of the picture in her pigheadedness about staying put. A lesser film would’ve sanded this woman down to an action figure of maternal one-thing-or-the-other, a scold or an angel, but Belfast allows her to be singularly herself, full of blind spots and fumbling unknowns. She’s human, and all the bigger for it. For all its dreamy black-and-white remembrances, what the film most left lingering on my mind was how finely it finesses out the realization that our parents were as clueless as we were. Winging it, just trying to smash together the semblance of a home, a family, a life, and a future, from the stardust and shrapnel constantly storming down on us every day. The film ends with a dedication to those who left, those who stayed, and those who were lost, which is a poetic way of saying, “Everybody, Ever.” Well, I felt included.
Belfast opens in theaters on November 12, 2021.
Image sources (in order of posting): Focus Features,