Written and Directed by Kenneth Branagh.
Starring Jude Hill, Jamie Dornan, Caitriona Balfe, Judi Dench, Ciarán Hinds, Lara McDonnell, Gerard Horan, Turlough Convery, Gerard McCarthy, Bríd Brennan, Sid Sagar, Colin Morgan, and Olive Tennant.
Buddy is a young boy on the cusp of adolescence, whose life is filled with familial love, childhood hijinks, and a blossoming romance. Yet, with his beloved hometown caught up in increasing turmoil, his family faces a momentous choice: hope the conflict will pass or leave everything they know behind for a new life.
Kenneth Branagh’s black-and-white cinematic stunner Belfast (a semi-autobiographical love letter to his childhood and home, conceived and written during lockdown presumably as a means of both remembrance and catharsis) opens with a tracking shot through the Northern Ireland streets, filled with vibrancy and activity as children play. Buddy (outstandingly expressive and animated newcomer Jude Hill) brandishes a toy sword and shield as the cinematography from Haris Zambarloukos slowly circles around, revealing a neighborhood war in the background. Still swiveling while remaining locked to Buddy (his face of sheer panic and horror burned into the screen), the violence intensifies with lobbed Molotov cocktails and destruction. With all of the endless strength, conviction, and bravery of a loving mother, Buddy’s Ma (Outlander staple Caitriona Balfe, making a radiant mark on the silver screen) grabs him while using the shield as a tool for defense, storming little ways through the frenzy and into their home.
Anyone not familiar with the tumultuous 1960s is now aware that tension, has long boiled over between the Protestants and Catholics (also referred to as The Troubles), of which Buddy’s family happens to be the former. Pa (a remarkable Jamie Dornan) is not interested in such silly games, often traveling to London performing joiner work and actively avoiding Billy (Colin Morgan), who takes advantage of his debt, pressuring the man into joining the cause of the “real” Protestants.
By this point, one would have every reason to assume that the stage and tone for Belfast have been set. In a way, they have, but Kenneth Branagh is not fixated on the religious rivalry extensively, even when armed forces are brought in to keep the peace. Instead, this hard but beautifully realized time and place are seen through the perspective of Buddy, whose daily life is nearly as chaotic for different reasons. He is developing a crush in school, trying to make sense of the hatred that religion fuels as depicted through amusing fear-mongering and homework assignments, finds himself in a questionable crowd encouraging him to shoplift, and often eavesdrops on his parents (meticulously crafted shot compositions economically manage space to such a degree that characters can be seen in the foreground and background, usually with incredible lighting technique) having challenging conversations regarding financial instability and the tough decision of possibly leaving Belfast.
Invaluable wisdom also comes from Granny and Pop (Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds, as the respective grandparents); they joke around in sitcom fashion and are still deeply in love, gracing the screen with a sense of care and affection that Buddy hopes to provide for his classmate someday. Of course, he seeks out matchmaking advice from Pop, which results in charming banter about their past. The same goes for the extra math lessons (as someone who always struggled with math, oh, how I wish Ciarán Hinds were my tutor).
That’s one way of saying that Belfast does a 180 pivot from its physical confrontation between two sides into something lighthearted, bubbly, and frequently funny. Songs from Van Morrison also provide fun, whereas Buddy’s blossoming fascination with cinema and all things entertainment (there’s a wonderful shot of him reading a Thor comic book, which is presumably deeper in meaning beyond a cutesy sight reference considering Kenneth Branagh directed the first entry of those movies). In addition to having his mind filled with wonder, this impressionable creativity is also a means of escapism from the ongoing turmoil, made all the more apparent by a brilliant choice to display the arts in color.
If there’s an issue to take with Belfast, it’s the messiness of the whole affair. However, that’s also likely by design, considering the parents and grandparents are never given character names (we can also assume that it’s a way of expanding on the biographical aspect of the work). Buddy has a brother named Will that is just there, and some subplots could use more time. There’s much freewheeling to Belfast, sometimes at the cost of a more engrossing narrative.
What is extraordinary is the back-and-forth between Ma and Pa, with the former planting her feet in the ground, determined to stay and not abandon home. Naturally, a discussion over what makes a home occurs as Pa comes to vulnerable confessions such as his wife raising the children near single-handedly. Both performances are nothing short of astonishing, culminating with a breathtakingly emotional song and dance number. Jamie Dornan is also tasked with giving a speech regarding the Protestant/Catholic beef and acceptance that should move anyone with a soul. Belfast is an arresting marriage of romanticism and sincerity, a love for home and future-shaping experiences relatably and joyously bursting out onto the screen.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at [email protected]
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