I am drawn to films that are personal to the filmmaker, and when that said filmmaker is Sir Kenneth Branagh, well it adds another layer of intrigue. As the title says, the film is set in the capital of Northern Ireland. I’m not too familiar with the Troubles, that is the tumultuous period of ethno-nationalist conflict between the late 1960s to 1998. The first film I saw that dealt with the warring Protestant vs Catholic factions was Five Minutes of Heaven where two of its main characters are invited to meet up by a media organization 3 decades after one of them killed the other’s brother in mid 1970s.
Branagh’s film is semi-autobiographical and was set in 1969 when he was just nine years old. Newcomer Jude Hill portrays the young Branagh, aka ‘Buddy’ in the film. He’s a vivacious boy who loves playing with his friends and neighbors in their tight-knit working class neighborhood where ‘everybody knows y’er name.’ He pretty much grows up mainly with his ‘Ma’ (Caitríona Balfe) and older brother Will (Lewis McAskie), as well as his doting grandparents ( Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench). His ‘Pa’ (Jamie Dornan) is often away on business in London, where he seems to be earning pretty good living for his family.
Narrated by Judi Dench, Branagh’s introduction to the Troubles comes early in the film in a stylish way as the film turns from color to black and white. Buddy is playing war games with pretend swords + shields, as kids often do. but suddenly a group of violent mob descends and things go awry and fiery very quickly. British military with troops and tanks arrives to keep calm the riots. It’s quite a disturbing scene told from the eyes of a young boy. Despite the restless times he’s living in however, the film depicts a vibrant and happy life for Buddy … we see him thriving at school, nursing a romantic crush on a school mate, doing pranks after school, basically doing things mischievous young boys do.
The topic of the Troubles is handled in a whimsical way when Buddy and his friend Moira (Lara McDonnell) discuss the difference between being Catholic vs. Protestants… but the mirth and whimsy doesn’t mean it lessen the impact and emotional struggle the family are facing. Pa feels that Belfast is getting more and more dangerous and wants the family to move to London. That becomes a point of argument with his wife who can’t imagine life outside Belfast.
It’s interesting to see the relevance of immigrant life we’re still dealing with today, as Buddy’s family are wary about how they would be accepted by Londoners who view them as outsiders. I love the conversation between Buddy and Pop who’s a proud, defiant Irishman… when Buddy asks what if the English won’t understand they way they talk, he replies ‘If they can’t understand ya, then they’re not listening.’
There is a specificity to the film’s casting, most of the cast here are Irish, in fact, Dornan and Hinds are from Belfast. Northern Irish young lad Jude Hill is quite a find, discovered amongst 300 actors. He’s delightful in his big feature debut, perfectly capturing the wide-eyed innocence of a precocious kid forced to be wiser beyond his years by circumstance. Many have complimented Dornan in one of his best performances of his career. I think he’s terrific here and his fans would be happy that he gets to sing again (he seems to sing quite a bit in his movies!). I was really taken by Balfe’s nuanced, layered performance, she’s definitely more memorable here than Dornan. That moment in the bus is likely going to be used as the clip for her Oscar campaign by the studio. She’s won acclaims in Outlander series, but she’s definitely ready for more prominent film roles.
Judi Dench is always a highlight in any film, and here she still shines in an understated role. I love the casting of Hinds who’s such an underrated character actor. It’s quite amusing to see him play Dame Judi’s husband despite being almost two decades younger. Another Northern Irish actor, Colin Morgan, has a small but memorable role as Pa’s childhood friend Billy, who is as close as you get to seeing the face of the ‘enemy.’
Those expecting lots of violent civil war action scenes are going to be disappointed. It’s not that kind of movie… it’s decidedly more reflective in its approach, more observant in nature. It’s appropriate for a coming-of-age drama about a boy whose life is about to change significantly. Given the highly-personal subject matter, I think Branagh is allowed to be lyrical and sentimental in his poignant love letter to his hometown. He employs a decidedly theatrical style as opposed to gritty realism, which is fine for this story but it also lessens some of the suspense. One particular scene in the third act when Pa’s conflict with the relentless Billy reaches a penultimate climax, the way it was staged makes the scenario feels less severe than I imagine it would have been in real life.
Branagh isn’t exactly known for his visual flair, but this is perhaps one of his most visually striking films. The black-and-white cinematography immediately conjures up a sense of nostalgia. DP Haris Zambarloukos uses a lot of wide angle shots to frame the scenes and most of the shots are deliberately off-center. It definitely adds a level of visual interest in an otherwise mundane, day-to-day life. The music by Belfast composer Van Morrison perfectly complements the tone and atmosphere.
Overall I find BELFAST entertaining and heartfelt… with plenty of wit and humor to keep things from being too dour. It shows the 30-year conflict through a different, non-judgmental lens that shows how in every clash, there are always the regular people who got caught up in something they didn’t want to be a part of. The ending pays a moving tribute to the people of the region, those who left, those who stay behind, and those who will always carry Belfast in their hearts.
P.S. This film won the Twin Cities Film Fest’s Best Feature Film prize AND the 2021 Audience Award this year – see all TCFF’s winners list!