Let’s first dispense with the obvious: Belfast is absolutely one of the best films of the year. If you’ve only seen previews, you could be fooled into thinking it’s a “family film” full of nostalgia about a young Irish boy’s “coming of age.” If that’s your takeaway, let me disabuse you of that notion. Belfast is not a “family film”—it’s a film about a normal Irish family living in extraordinary times (Northern Ireland in the late ‘60s). The distinction is incredibly meaningful here. Belfast is too gritty to be Disney, but it’s also not Paul Greengrass’s Bloody Sunday either. In fact, it’s not really political. Instead, it’s simply human.
It’s a film full of sentiment that is not sentimental, which is one hell of a mean trick. The balancing of living in the epitome of what we might call a “changing neighborhood” with the love of the familiar that comes with generation after generation living in the same town is deeply felt.
Kenneth Branagh, who was born in Belfast, directs as if working more from memory than script (which he also wrote). However gentle Belfast is in some aspects, as it depicts this family of four trying to make a life amidst growing chaos, it is truly a film from the gut. Belfast is the kind of movie a filmmaker makes because they have a burning desire to do so. As if to say, before I shuffle off this mortal coil, I must make this movie. This may well be the best film of Branagh’s career as a director, it’s only competition being Henry V, and the cast from Judi Dench to Catriona Balfe to Jamie Dornan, to Ciaran Hinds, to a little boy named Jude Hill (who the film is truly about), are all fabulous.
Belfast at that time was a place splintered by politics and religion. These are people who love their country, their neighborhood, and their home, but can’t believe what has happened to all three. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination in 2021 to relate to that state of affairs.
Still, this isn’t a sad bastard film about a few people trying to survive in an area that has become a war zone. There are harrowing moments, but there is great joy in the film too. Like when a young boy brings flowers to a girl he is smitten with, or when a husband mimes to “Everlasting Love” while his wife dances in front of him, or of a family out at a matinee taking in the pictures.
It’s that last thing I want to focus on now: the magic of the movies.
You see, I was born in a tiny place called Pikeville, Kentucky. It’s a coal-mining town full of poor folks who end their day with a long shower trying to clear the soot from their bodies and their lungs. My grandfather died before I was born from the insidious condition known as “black lung.” I am reminded of the one time my mother told me the story of the day her father died, running from their tiny family home, clutching his chest, and gasping for air.
My mother was only twelve at the time, but whether she knew it or not, that was the day she decided her future son would not meet the same fate. So, at the age of twenty, she moved herself and her four-year-old son to another small town in Michigan. Niles was no one’s idea of a thriving metropolis, but it was far, far away from a place where canaries are flown into a mine shaft to test the air for safety.
While this long move north didn’t result in riches and great opportunities, the lower middle class life I had there gave me a chance. It was still a rough go though. We couldn’t afford real vacations. At best, we’d make a trip every 2-3 years back to Pikeville to see my grandmother and my three uncles—when we could afford it. We certainly didn’t have wonderful weekends at the beach or take any trips to the “big city” of Chicago. Even an improved small town life is still small town life—complete with all the barriers and restrictions one might imagine.
I think that’s what made me fall in love with movies. Maybe I couldn’t actually go to Spike Lee’s Brooklyn, or Wim Wenders’ Berlin, or Kurosawa’s Japan, but for two hours, when the house lights went down, I could be transported to distant lands, lives, and languages.
It was exhilarating. I was traveling without moving. In the temple of the film theater, I could leave my mundane existence behind—if only for a few hours. What I also found was that on the right night with the right film, that transport didn’t quite end. Those films of my youth continued to live inside of me. Hell, they still do.
That brings me back to the experience I had at Belfast. The most obvious take is to say that Branagh’s depiction of Belfast is so distinctive that I truly felt like I was immersed in Northern Ireland, circa 1969. And that would be true, but that’s not all.
Late in the movie, the family takes in a matinee of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang—a film I had long forgotten. It’s no one’s idea of a classic film, but there is a sequence in it that is completely transfixing when viewed through the eyes of this Irish family eking out a hardscrabble existence in the place of their birth, where they make their lives, and where the circumstances of their times have them questioning whether they should stay.
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, at its simplest, is a film about a man (played by Dick Van Dyke) who invents a flying car and takes his family on an adventure in said vehicle. As the family in Belfast watches the car head at breakneck speed to the edge of a cliff overlooking the ocean, they all lean forward in anticipation, holding their collective breath. The car takes leave of the ground, the wings of the vehicle open, and the car takes flight. The Belfast family leans back in unison and exhales—eyes full of wonder.
There is suspense, there is joy, there is lift off. I’ve never seen another movie capture the pure glory of the movies so well. There they were, two adults, two children, and one senior sharing a communal experience, leaving the world outside for a moment to be taken away to places unknown to them.
I felt it to my core. Through them, I was reminded of the magic of the movies while watching their movie.
They were traveling without moving, and, once again, so was I.