Front Row at the Movies by Shirrel Rhoades

5/5 (1)

I love stories and movies that are based on childhood memories. Think: Truman Capote’s “The Thanksgiving Visitor” and “A Christmas Memory.” Or Dylan Thomas’s “A Child’s Christmas in Wales.” Or even Jean Shepherd’s “A Christmas Story.”

But such memory pieces don’t have to be about holidays. Point in case is the new movie “Belfast,” based on the memories of growing up in Northern Ireland by Kenneth Branagh.

Sir Kenneth Charles Branagh is an actor, director, bon vivant. You may know him as Hercule Poirot in in Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express” (2017) or as the director of Marvel’s “Thor” (2011). But he’s actually a classically trained actor, a product of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (later he succeeded Richard Attenborough as its president).

Branagh has directed and starred in several film adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays – “Henry V” (1989), “Much Ado About Nothing” (1993), “Othello” (1995), “Hamlet” (1996), “Love’s Labour Lost” (2000), and “As You Like It” (2006). He portrayed William Shakespeare in “All is True” (2018).

He can even play great Shakespearean actors like Sir Laurence Olivier in “My Week With Marilyn” (2011) or TV detectives in “Wallander” (2008 – 2016).

Now Branagh has directed “Belfast,” based on his memories of growing up in Northern Ireland.

Born in Belfast, his parents were working class Protestants. Moving to England at the age of nine, he attended Meadway School, where he started to appear in school productions. To avoid bullying, he learned to speak Required Pronunciation, the accent traditionally regarded as the standard for British English.

But as he recently said, “I feel Irish. I don’t think you can take Belfast out of the boy.” As the film’s tagline says, “No matter how far you go, you never forget where you came from.”

“Belfast” is a love letter to the city of Branagh’s birth.

This coming-of-age story gives us Buddy, a youngster growing up during The Troubles (as the bloody Northern Ireland Conflict between Protestants and Catholics was called). Pa tries to stay out of the fight as long as he can, finally facing an “are you with us or against us” decision. As one fan of the movie puts it, “It’s quite a family dilemma. How do you decide to pack up and leave the only town you’ve ever called home, and when do you make that decision? When does the danger and turmoil pose too much to risk for your kids?”

Time magazine noted the film’s “affectionate energy.” And Entertainment Weekly said “Branagh’s genuine affection and nostalgia for his subject suffuse the movie ….”

Rotten Tomatoes sums it up: “A deeply personal project for writer-director Kenneth Branagh, ‘Belfast’ transcends its narrative deficits with powerful performances and directorial craft.”

Powerful performances come from a powerful cast:

Newcomer Jude Hill holds his own as Buddy (the cinematic stand-in for Branagh). Lewis McAskie is well cast as his older brother. Caitriona Baife (“Ford v. Ferrari”) and Jamie Dorman (“Fifty Shades of Grey”) are his Ma and Pa. Judi Dench (“Philomena” and those James Bond movies) and Ciarán Hinds (“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”) stand out as Granny and Pop.

Branagh hugs onto his film’s authenticity closely. Actors Jude Hill, Lewis McAskie, Jamie Dorman, and Ciarán Hinds are from Northern Ireland. Caitriona Baife is from Dublin. And Dame Judi Dench’s mother came from Ireland. And many Belfast extras fill in the background.

The film’s music is by Van Morrison, who is himself a Belfast native. He delivers eight classic songs as well as a new piece he wrote just for the film.

Cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos works wonders with a monochromatic palette that takes us back in time at the moment the opening color scene of the modern-day Belfast shipyards transitions into a black-and-white view of 1969.

As one moviegoer summed it up: “I grew up a few streets away from Ken (Branagh) during the ‘50s, ‘60s and early ‘70s. Went to the same primary school, but we never knew one another. Ran in a local gang, only once nicking a choccie bar from the local supermarket as a dare, and always every Friday night running out the back with me ma from the rent man. My da was away more than he was with us. I now have a better perspective of what my ma went through raising four kids. This film is amazing, true to memory, and caused me to … ‘choke’ many, many times. I cried, I laughed, and I held my breath. More than a movie to me.”

As Granny tells Buddy in the movie: “Go. Go now. Don’t look back. I love you, son.”

And Pop says, “Belfast will still be here when you get back.”

This film is Kenneth Branagh’s homecoming.

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