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Belfast ••••1/2

Movie Greg Scott




(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Greg, are you a fast or slow bell-ringer?

I abstain from bells, which I suppose is a Bell fast. Let’s recap:

We meet a Protestant Irish family living in Belfast, Ireland. It is the summer of 1969, at the outset of “The Troubles”, that decades-long, religion-based conflict between factions wanting Ireland to be part of the UK versus separating from the UK. Buddy is a nine-year old child living what appears to be an idyllic life when one day a violent mob attacks his community. Buddy’s dad “Pa”, who is working in England, rushes home to console the family.

Buddy and his brother are being pulled into “gangs” which his father is trying to keep them out of – which is hard since “Pa” is away in England working off his tax debt. “Ma” is trying to keep the boys out of trouble and occupied. Meanwhile, Grandfather “Pop” is suffering from black lung disease and grandmother “Granny” is keeping an eye on Pop.

Greg, the movie Belfast tells a good tale about the beginnings of the Irish Civil War, as seen through eyes of a young, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed lad named Buddy. Buddy is the indisputable hero of the story, a young innocent who is hurled into a dark, dangerous world of social upheaval and terrorism. This story focuses on how Buddy navigates through the many hazards of growing up in an unstable environment, trying to discern friends from enemies and often not doing a good job of it. In the end, though, he grows into wisdom.

For me, young actor Jude Hill steals the show and is the main justification for seeing this film. Hill has a remarkably expressive face, and he depicts a wide range of emotions – fear, joy, confusion, sadness, you name it and Hill nails the emotion to perfection. Hill’s execution here is among the top three performances I can think of in a young child actor. The only young performer who may have delivered better performances than this was kid-actor Haley Joel Osment who was stunning in The Sixth Sense and in Pay it Forward, way back in 1999 and 2000, respectively.

Given Jude Hill’s excellence here, it is baffling that he has not received any nominations for Best Actor. It seems to me that this is a clear case of age discrimination. Other actors in Belfast have been nominated for their performances, and while I don’t deny that they did a fine job, there is absolutely no doubt that Jude Hill is dazzling and deserves the most and highest accolades.

We’re in total agreement here. There are scenes where director Kenneth Branagh keeps the camera on Buddy while Ma and Pa are arguing. We watch Buddy’s expression as a reaction to all that is going on. The entire movie is told through Buddy’s eyes. And for good reason, this is Branagh’s own biography.

Young Jude Hill reminds me of Jerry Mathers from “Leave it to Beaver.” They both have an earnestness and innocence that pulls you in. And the camera loves them. I’m also reminded of the cover of the U2 album “War.” Especially since Buddy’s expression at the beginning of the film is so angelic, and by the end of the film he looks more weary and the impact of the harsh war around him begins to reflect on his face.

We also see Buddy’s world through the television shows and movies he watches. It’s an interesting choice that Branagh makes by showing the movie scenes in full color while the rest of the movie is in black-and-white. It’s almost as if the movies were more real in some way than his real life experiences.

The other thing that jumped out at me was the presentation of Buddy’s iconic heroes. We see Captain Kirk, Robin Hood, and cowboy Will Kane (Gary Cooper) from “High Noon” on the TV set. Later, there’s a scene where Pa is facing down one of the street hoods who is trying to recruit Pa into the gangs. It’s right out of “High Noon” with Pa in the role of Kane. It’s a reminder of how strong an influence fathers have on sons – even fathers who are largely absent. Fathers are a boy’s first hero.

Well said, Gregger. This film is packed with heroic qualities such as courage, loyalty, resilience, and resourcefulness. But we also see the opposite, namely, cowardice, greed, brutality, and blind tribalism. Buddy’s parents are doing their best to raise a family and pay the bills in the worst possible environment. They are noble and virtuous, yet less than perfect, as seen when they make sensible plans to move to England only to be swayed otherwise by Buddy’s tantrum. This choice nearly costs them all their lives.

This movie deserves all its nominations and recognitions for Best Picture, although I will say once again that Jude Hill has been tragically overlooked in the Best Actor category. Belfast showcases the best and worst of human nature and is a wonderful and poignant coming-of-age story. I give the movie 4 Reels out of 5. Our hero Buddy has the perfect pair of eyes with which to view all the mayhem and confusion around him. We feel for him and grow up with him. I give Buddy the full 5 Hero points out of 5.

One of the things that struck me was the “tribalism” of Belfast. That is, the reluctance to move because “everyone knows your name.” Pa knows that the Belfast Ma is attached to is either gone, or soon to be gone. He knows that the only way to preserve and care for his family is to leave Belfast behind. I was also struck by the poignant image of Granny watching her children ride off on the bus: left behind but encouraging them to go and “not look back.”

“Belfast” is very much Buddy’s story. While it shows us some of the upheaval of 1969 Belfast, it only touches on the issues (religious separatism, politics, taxation) that created the decades-long unrest in Northern Ireland. While I was alive during that time, it was only an occasional blip on my radar. I’m inspired to go back and learn more.

For a great coming-of-age story, well-told through the eyes of newcomer Jude Hill and well-directed with love by Kenneth Branagh, I give “Belfast” 5 out of 5 Reels. And for the presentation of a young boy’s hero – his father – as well as the resilience of his mother, I award a full 5 Hero points.

Movie Greg Scott

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