November 12th, 2021
STARRING: JUDE HILL, CAITRIONA BALFE, JAMIE DORNAN, JUDI DENCH, CIARAN HINDS
DIRECTED BY: KENNETH BRANAGH
AMovieGuy.com’s RATING: 3 ½ STARS (Out of 4)
The concept of family for me has changed drastically over the last 10-years. I had major disagreements and issues with my family in the past, which led to years without seeing one another. I started my own family, with my beautiful wife and son, but also would begin to rekindle my relationships with my mother, brother, and sister. I think this maturity and growth is a thing with age, where I find a greater appreciation for my aunts and uncles around, with the sadness for those that pass away, and realize how incredibly important your family is. That’s the message with Belfast, a personal film for director Kenneth Branagh, shot in a crisp black & white, and a lovely portrait of the impact his loved ones have had on him since he was a child. Belfast is a story that touched my heart, about a young boy growing up in 1969 during the Protestant-Catholic wars in Northern Ireland, and the enormous love of his family around him.
Branagh sets the stage with overhead, in-color images of Belfast 2021, and then slowly takes us back into the past, where the cinematography bleeds into that black & white tone. In a beautiful tracking shot, we get a quick tour of the small neighborhood, where everyone around is one big community family, moving past parents that sit outside their front doors telling other kids to get away, and we eventually land on Buddy (Jude Hill), playing with his sword and using a trash can lid as his shield. Ma (Caitriona Balfe) steps outside and shouts for Buddy, one kid hears, telling another kid, and eventually getting the message to our hero. He goes back home, says goodbye to his Pa (Jamie Dornan), and walks with his brother Will (Lewis McAskie) off to school. This is what this family knows. This is their comfort and home is where the heart is.
On the other side of town is a rumbling war between Protestants and Catholics, with Pa often out of town, working any construction job he can get, sometimes spending months in England, while the battle between IRA and Protestant fighters arrives on the doorstep. Windows broken and fires started, the war is too close, and now this quaint and kind Irish family must rethink if staying is the right choice. There’s guidance from Pop (Ciaran Hinds) and Granny (Judi Dench), but it ultimately becomes a choice Buddy’s parents must make, and it’s breaking their hearts. But in between that pain is the comfort that Buddy finds at the local movie theater, the laughter they have with friends in town, and the still fear of leaving behind all they have made.
Along with the black & white and a story of community, it’s obvious that Branagh’s inspiration are the films of John Ford, specifically How Green Was My Valley, a movie that is the pinnacle of movies about family. That beautiful connection to Ford’s work is why I found Belfast incredible, being the son of a big Irish family, the emotions and genuine love that pours from Belfast is delightfully authentic. It’s impossible not to see myself in these people. See the same view of family that many Irish communities have, which is both heartbreaking and romantic at the same time. A scene where the entire family goes to see Chitty Chitty Bang Bang left a big smile on my face, with how this family is able to gather with love, pushing through the terror around them. That’s the John Ford factor, where Branagh’s direction is ultimately not just about Buddy, but through the eyes of Buddy, what he views around him, which is the true complexity of life. In Northern Ireland it’s a time of love and war.
It’s not that Belfast is a perfect film. Some of the messaging of the war seems kept at arm’s length, which could use more context, but that might also be the point. It is undoubtedly a crowd pleaser- especially with a breakout moment where Dornan sings “Everlasting Love”- but it’s the mushy, romantic side that works best. There’s a genuine understanding of the assignment from the entire cast, especially Caitriona Balfe, who should prepare for an Oscar nomination, while there’s a fantastic dichotomy between the veteran performances from Hinds and Dench, alongside the bright eyed wonder of newcomer Jude HIll. Yes, Belfast is a beautiful film with a whole lot of heart, a wonderful love letter from Kenneth Branagh to his personal experiences, something he should be proud of. I would say the Irish eyes are smiling on Belfast.
BELFAST IS IN THEATERS FRIDAY NOVEMBER 12TH, 2021
3 ½ STARS
Written by: Leo Brady