Director: Mark Cousins
Cast: Helena Bereen, Mark Cousins
Watch I Am Belfast online in the UK: BFI Player+ / BFI Player / Curzon Home Cinema / iTunes
The words “poetic tribute to the city of Belfast” may not appeal to everyone, but there’s certainly poetry to be found in Mark Cousins’ gentle city symphony.
The director’s latest cinematic essay chronicles the changing landscape of the Irish town. Cousins’ narration is out in full force, his mellifluous brogue providing an easy-listening counterpart to visuals that are equally easy on the eye. He mostly hands voice-over duties, though, to Helena Bereen, who voices an old woman who has lived in the city for generations – and, in turn, voices the place itself.
“She had a way of saying a way of talking and hoping – and so, I listened,” offers Cousins. “I’m glad you listened. You didn’t have to,” she replies. Their pitter-patter exchanges continue throughout, taking us from the natural beauty outside of the city to urban sights at its heart.
There’s a witty interplay between the dialogue and the deluge of beautiful compositions (DoP Christopher Doyle is as much of a star draw as Cousins), with Bereen often observing that the blue buildings or brown brick walls need a splash of yellow or orange to complete the picture – only for people with yellow bags or orange pushchairs to wander into the frame. “Is this magic?” they wonder, and there is something mesmerising in the lyrical tone. Ordinary sights, such as cranes on building sites, become orange dinosaurs munching on the past, as the movie repeatedly finds beauty in the everyday mundanity that rarely gets seen by the rest of the UK.
It doesn’t always work, with the observations sometimes feeling too forced – “This place is called Hopewell,” they say at one point. “That’s what we’re doing. Hoping wel.” – and the drifting nature of the commentary takes us down an inconsequential diversion into Creature from he Black Lagoon territory, but there’s a lot to be said for a film that’s so unashamedly heartfelt and sincere, especially one that doesn’t outstay its welcome.
That sentimental streak also allows the surprising moments to stand out, from an intriguing observation about the prevalence of Titanic imagery throughout the city to accounts of the conflict – “Things that couldn’t happen did.” – and how 26 bombs went off in one day. The most unexpected moment, though, is a late conversation between Rosie and Maude, two old ladies (a Catholic and a Protestant), who are chatting in a cafe. Swearing and laughing together, while hitting on Cousins’ unseen narrator, they’re a living embodiment of Belfast’s charm and history, the intangible poetry of Bereen’s symbolic woman made caustically, lovingly real. You wonder whether the whole project would have benefitted from being presented by them. Nonetheless, this is an endearing, insightful tribute that will charm both fans of Belfast and Cousins alike.
Photo: Courtesy BFI