Written and Directed by Kenneth Branagh
Music by Van Morrison; Cinematography by Haris Zambarloukos; Film Editing by Úna Ní Dhonghaíle
With Jude Hill (Buddy), Lewis McAskie (Will), Caitríona Balfe (Ma), Jamie Dornan (Pa), Judi Dench (Granny), Ciarán Hinds (Pop), Colin Morgan (Billy Clanton), Lara McDonnell (Moira), Catherine (Olivia Tennant)
Buddy is the young son of Pa (Jamie Dornan) and Ma (Caitríona Balfe) and serves as the protagonist of this brilliantly written and directed paean to human decency. Set in 1969, in the midst of the violent conflicts between the Irish Republic Army and the protestant gangs in Northern Ireland which allied against it and Catholics generally, the story focuses on the plight of this family and its desire to stay noble and above the fray. Pa works in England and comes home every couple of weeks to find more and more pressure upon him to join a Protestant gang. Wanting to move away, he encounters the but we’ve always lived in Belfast sentiments of his noble but homebound wife. To boot, Pa’s aged parents Granny (Judi Dench) Pop (Ciarán Hinds) live nearby and his father is ailing from lung disease, making the decision to stay or leave that much more difficult. To boot, Buddy has a serious crush on a girl, Catherine (Olivia Tennant) in his class.
For starters, the cinematography by Haris Zambarloukos is wonderfully done, showing itself boldly at the introduction, but revealing itself more subtly and persuasively throughout. The film editing by Úna Ní Dhonghaíle, as well, is finely wrought, making scenes flow seamlessly but yielding drama where necessary.
Branagh’s writing here is just wonderful, clearly exhibiting the violence of the times, but mostly focusing on the ways in which militantly misguided henchmen rule the lives of the innocent. It also shows the hearbreak of loving a home and feeling challenged to leave it. The portrayal of Ma’s and Pa’s romance and relationship is just right – full of appropriate passion that yields considerable heat without over revelation, and a depiction of the challenges of difficult decision-making regarding money, family and relocation. Dornan and Balfe are pitch perfect, handsome and appealing while seeming down to earth and ordinary at the same time. The only possible criticism from some quarters might be that they are a bit too sexy and beautiful for the setting and the time, but that did not bother me; it added a bit of charm and romance to an otherwise difficult tale.
The majesty of the film is its tribute to quietly heroic nobility, the capacity to stand on principles and on one’s own best judgment without yielding to forces imposed at every turn. Pa and Ma both exhibit this moral backbone strongly at different times, though the film is deft in leaving some suspense about how and when they will respond. Pa’s parents, played with penetrating and sophisticated insight by the majestically capable Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds, show where the backbone of that backbone comes from.
Almost none of the portrayals seems false at any point. When, near the end, Buddy throws a tantrum, it’s a bit out of character and extreme, but, by that point, his portrayal, and that of the rest of the cast, including his older brother Will (Lewis McAskie), is tender, resilient and completely believable.
In the role of the arm-twisting bad guy Billy Clanton, Colin Morgan, is fierce and frightening, a role that Benedict Cumberbatch might well have embodied. As Moira, a young cousin of Buddy’s who tries to egg him on into various wayward endeavors, Lara McDonnell is charmingly errant and has, as the denouement arrives, her own turn of mind.
The soundtrack by Van Morrison sounds a little contemporary and sleek for the tough subject-matter, but somehow it works. Along with the fine cinematography and editing it helps create an appealing appearance to a difficult narrative.
The denouement, brilliantly written, casts Buddy and his father talking about Buddy’s crush on Catherine , the girl at school. What he says about her and what his father answer is worth the price of admission. It is low-key, absolutely true to the bone, and makes one yearn for those who bolster humanity. Perfectly in keeping with the understated but highly persuasive tone of the screenplay generally, it is uttered straightforwardly and reaches deeply within.– BADMan (aka Charles Munitz)