Kenneth Branagh’s most personal film, might be his strongest
“The Troubles” in Northern Ireland is a subject that has been explored cautiously in film, always with the same conclusion of the horrible ripping of society that was brought with the neighbor-on-neighbor enmity. Few films have been able to encapsulate the personal feeling that the violence brought, however.
Belfast (2021) takes place in the eponymous capital in 1969. Buddy (Jude Hill) is a schoolboy whose biggest concerns revolve around sitting next to his school crush and what new movie will be playing at the cinema. He lives with his mother (Caitriona Balfe) and is occasionally visited by his loving father (Jamie Dornan) who works during the week in London. Added to his circle of family are his grandparents, the stern but caring grandmother (Judi Dench) and the witty and kind grandfather (Ciaran Hinds). Buddy’s life seems perfectly splendid, until violence between Catholics and Protestants breaks out, shattering the boy’s idyllic world.
Belfast is directed by Kenneth Branagh. Branagh is a director who has usually stuck to the academic and effective adaptation of classics. His work with Shakespeare on screen is already legendary, and his recent foray into Agatha Christie’s novels is proving fruitful, with a new film coming out next year (Death on the Nile (2022)). Branagh’s directorial efforts, however, have steered clear of personal and vulnerable films, that is until Belfast, which is based on Branagh’s own childhood.
Branagh lenses Belfast through the eyes of the young Buddy, fabulously played with surprisingly aplomb by Hill. With this smart framing of perspective, Branagh can boil down the complex aspects of “the Troubles” to ones of simply disrupting the joy and carefree times of peaceful folk. The British director never digs too deep into the narratives surrounding the violent affairs, only making tongue-in-cheek mockery of religion, and moving on. The director is much more interested in showing the quotidian and personal life of Buddy, which help contrast the intrusive elements of strife that pop up in the streets.
Branagh gets creative with Belfast in more ways than just narrative risk. He shoots the film in black-and-white, in a move akin to Passing (2021) earlier this year, which sarcastically took on a “black-and-white” subject and showed an underlying complexity instead. Branagh also uses this stylistic choice to give a nod to his own artform, showing the films and plays that Buddy experiences in full color, as the artistic escape they prove to be. The camerawork in Belfast is truly spectacular. Branagh chooses low-stature shots that peer around corners and through windows, much like a child would, helping approximate viewers to how Buddy sees the world.
Branagh, however, might get a bit bogged down in creating the ambience and atmosphere of his childhood neighborhood. Belfast begins to wander redundantly towards the middle, with viewers uncertain as to where Buddy and his journey are truly going. Thankfully, the British director pulls off a strong finale, with a tribute to the pains and conflictions of immigration. Nevertheless, the slightly heavier second act weighs down what could have been a more compact and emotionally impactful whole.
Branagh shows a great hand at handling his performers, once again. Hill is an absolute revelation and is aided by an adult cast that smartly knows how to play to a child’s perspective. Hinds is incredibly endearing, and Dench is her usual reliable rock. However, I was more pleased with the performances from Balfe and Dornan as the parents, who get meatier scenes and deal with them beautifully. Both actors have been relegated and struggling to break out from the rosy and cheesy roles of their past. After impressive work in various independent films, I hope Belfast proves to be the launching pad for some prestige recognition for both.
In the end, Belfast is a warm and intimate film that overcomes the wandering moments with an incredibly affecting story and performances. The film brings an enlightening perspective to “the Troubles” conflict in Britain, and effectively demonstrates the tragedy and trauma brought on families and individuals who were just looking to be happy.