A Love Letter to Belfast (2021)
This essay was original written for The Next Best Picture
I’ve had a lot of time to think about this Kenneth Branagh-directed semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story about a young boy growing up during the Troubles, and at no point in my critical analysis have I been able to completely separate myself emotionally from Belfast’s heart and spirit. Seemingly manufactured to make me cry in its familiarity to my real life experience with my Belfast-born grandparents, the film is a bittersweet story without borders, recognizable to anyone with historic ties to a far away land for which they feel a disconnected longing. I came away away from Belfast with the feeling of having just pored over a family photo album, relishing in the evidence of familial history while aching for time gone by.
In August, I moved from Vancouver to Toronto, that is well over 2000 miles, to begin studying for my master’s degree in film preservation. I left the place in which I’d been born and raised for over twenty years for a somewhere much bigger, faster, and louder. While a significant portion of my extended family lives in Toronto, this move gave me the perspective to realize how much I love Vancouver and that, for lack of a better phrase, there is no place like home.
As I often do, I saw Belfast alone. Popcorn in hand, I sat back to take in this already declared awards season “frontrunner”, my critics cap firmly in place. But I knew no matter how hard I tried, I could never watch Belfast through totally objective eyes. As Northern Irish Catholics, my grandma (my dad’s mom) has recounted many stories of adversity she experienced as a young woman due to her distinctly Irish last name. She and my grandad left for Toronto in the mid-fifties, where my dad was born soon after. They then relocated to Vancouver when my dad was still a baby. According to him, he spoke with an Ulster accent as a boy until he started school. I couldn’t help but picture the adorable and charming Buddy, played by Jude Hill, through whose wide eyes the action of the film is seen, as the closest I would ever get to seeing my dad as a child.
From my perspective the film’s most tear-jerking moments were those between Buddy and his grandparents, played by Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds. At ninety-seven, my grandma is still my go-to conversation partner when it comes to studio era cinema. She would have been the age I am now in 1947, and was lucky enough to be there in person for the golden age of film and its dazzling stars. My granddad passed away ten years ago, and is the case with Buddy, was the first major familial death of my life. As a result, my memories of him are as a typical grandfather figure, taking every opportunity to spoil me rotten as any grandparent would. Though bearing little physical resemblance, Hinds mannerisms, his accent, and his relationship with Buddy felt both eerily and comforting familiar. As the film started to come to an end, I found myself in a state of devastated happiness, or jubilant sorrow. Crying and laughing at the same time, I immediately texted my family with my recommendation attached with a word of caution: “dad is gonna cry”.
My family saw the film less than a week later. My dad shared his thoughts through text in his signature direct style.
Dad: Belfast 8.5 out of 10
Me: Glad you liked it! Did you cry?
Dad: No crying. I was happy it showed a good side of protestants. Judy [his spelling] Dench accent was only okay
Me: I also noticed her accent
Dad: Wee boy crushing on wee girl was done brilliantly throughout picture
Me: that was very cute
Dad: Depiction of “leaders” as basic criminals and gangsters (on both sides) accurate. B&W indulgent by director. Unnecessary.
Me: I agree. What did you think of the grandad?
Dad: Grandad was so much like my dad as a granddad. Odd experience watching him. Fortunately he didn’t sound exactly like my dad
Me: The main kid was very endearing
Me: Oscar for what?
Dad: Oscar for wee boy
Me: That’s high praise. Maybe not best actor, they should bring back the juvenile award from the 1930’s
Dad: Great suggestion. He was gold. Without his charisma the movie would not be as good
Me: Thoughts on the parents?
Dad: Mostly I enjoyed it because it accurately portrays the unique (to them) ways that Ulster Irish express love to each other other in often difficult circumstances. The mom had great legs and dad was handsome like a young Marlon Brando. They were believable and I could relate. My dad used to go away for weeks at a time when I was the same age. If I ever meet Kenneth I will tell him that both our dads made the right decision - leave Belfast.