Belfast and CODA both share scenes where a parent tells their child to “GO”, not in an expression of anger, but of love. And there are so many other parallels between these two movies. They are both about families, torn apart and pushed together by the changing forces of the outside world. Although one was set in contemporary New England, and the other in Belfast, Ireland, during “The Troubles” of the early 1970s, the stories both show how strong families endure and shelter their members against the sometimes-wrenching environments where they are forced to live.
In both pictures, the leading characters are children, played by relatively new young actors. I predicted that we will be seeing a lot more of Emilia Jones because of her performance in CODA, and I suspect the same can be said of young Jude Hill, in his acting debut, who plays Buddy, a nine-year-old growing up in the cobbled streets of industrial Belfast. Kenneth Branagh wrote and directed this film, and it is, apparently, autobiographical. Clearly, Branagh fell in love with young Hill’s performance and even surreptitiously filmed him acting in rehearsals to capture more of his spontaneous acting. Buddy, and Jude Hill, are indeed the center of this film.
But family stories never work when centered only on a single character. Belfast takes great care to flesh out the rest of the family members. Although they don’t have any other names than “Ma”, “Pa”, “Granny” and “Pops,” Buddy has parents and grandparents. Jamie Dornan’s “Pa” works in England but seems to always be at home when the drama picks up. Caitriona Balfe is exceptional as a woman who loves her family very much, but is torn by how best to protect them, both from the government tax man and the growing Troubles.
Balfe did not get an Oscar nod, and she probably should have, but both actors playing the grandparents did. Dame Judy Dench, one of the grand dames of British stage and film acting, received her seventh acting nomination for her role here, and Ciaran Hinds received a supporting actor nod for this performance. What is fascinating in this film is not only in how much they care for their son (Pa) and his children, but also how much they love each other. The movie places almost as much attention on the relationships between Ma and Pa and between Granny and Pops, as it does on Buddy. The value of that is that these characters are all very well fleshed out and we understand how valuable a functioning family can be.
Perhaps the best technical angle of the movie is in the music and sound. Nominated for Best Sound, I agree it has a clarity that is unusual for movies with lots of dialog. But more fun, I thought, was all the music from Van Morrison who, like Branagh, was born in Belfast, although several years earlier. Van Morrison composed a song for this movie, “Down to Joy,” which was nominated for Original Song. In addition to the original song, the soundtrack incorporates nine more Van Morrison songs, half of them written during the time period of the movie. If you enjoy his music, you will find it a welcome enhancement.
I suspect some viewers may fail to find anything in this family that they can relate to. My wife Joan, for example, couldn’t identify with anyone and, especially, not the mother. For her, this isn’t a good representation of family life. (On the other hand, she loved CODA). But, generally, if you enjoy movies that depict healthy families, watch both of them. They provide two different takes on family life. (3.5 *)
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