Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast is a lovely film; a serious but delightfully enchanting semi autobiographical tale in which at every turn, you get the feel for the love and passion from the people making it. The film is currently the front runner to win the Best Picture Oscar, which doesn’t always mean anything (I like Green Book more than most, but, Best Picture?), but this is one of those wonderful hype trains I suggest you hop aboard, because there’s no turning back. This one is a winner.
There is a lot of beauty to behold in Belfast, in terms of its visuals and its details, and the people too. Yet the real beauty of Belfast just might be in Branagh’s approach to this material. Belfast is a beauty in the way it captures life; its ups and downs, its pleasures and sorrows. It’s a film that constantly juggles emotions, but every single one of them is effective and earned. Perhaps most unique though is the way in which Branagh is able to capture life not just from a certain time period (this being life in Belfast, Ireland in 1969), but said life through the eyes of a child. It’s easy to imagine that there is plenty of truth in Belfast, but Branagh captures this time and place the way that HE remembers it.
Just the way that he is able to put us from the point of view of a child so flawlessly and effectively is something to admire. The sights and the sounds; the pleasures of the little things, such as running through the streets, hanging out with family, going to the movies. It’s very easy to imagine that this is a young Branagh, considering our hero Buddy’s apparent interests (there is even an Easter egg to one of Branagh’s films). All of this is left in the hands of the film’s central star, newcomer Jude Hill, in one of the film’s many great performances. It’s perhaps too early to tell if Hill is a contender, but as child actor’s come, he’s a real find.
Belfast opens in August of 1969, and these opening moments set the tone for the rest of the movie. Buddy (Hill) runs through the streets of Belfast living his best life. It seems like a quaint little area in which everyone knows each other’s names and they’re all something of a family. The peace is disrupted immediately though by a group of radical protestors, who begin shattering windows, blowing up cars, and causing more than just a ruckus. Buddy and his family are smack dab in the middle of this rather terrifying action, no less. Said protestors are apart of a Protestant/ Catholic rivalry- a part of history I’m not fully aware of, but Branagh fills us in.
Said historical event is essentially the backdrop for the events in Belfast, and the sequences that revolve said events are rather frightening and unsettling. Belfast however isn’t about the event as much as it is about Buddy and his family. His mother (Caitriona Balfe) is stern but loving; as is his father (Jamie Dornan) who is off to work in London a good chunk of the time but cares deeply. We often see the marital drama in Belfast but it is depicted, as you’d expect, from the way a child would hear it. Buddy also spends much of his time with his grandparents (Judi Dench and Ciaran Hinds), who not only adore Buddy but each other. There is also a lot of time spent at Buddy’s school, as he has a crush on a schoolgirl.
Belfast, on paper, doesn’t sound like a great time at the movies. But trust me when I say this: it is. Sure, it sounds familiar. Comparisons to Alfonso Cuaron’s Oscar winning Roma are to be expected, in that both films were made in gorgeous black and white and both films came from the filmmaker’s hearts and memories. Yet Belfast also feels like a spiritual successor to John Boorman’s wonderful Hope and Glory. Belfast is a coming of age tale, which, yeah, has been done a plethora of times. What sets this film apart though is the way in which Branagh approaches the material. Belfast could’ve been deadly serious, and at times it is serious, but more often than not, the film is sharp, funny, and it’s filled with not only childlike wonder but a large, beating heart, placed firmly in its center. I don’t say this often, but I smiled throughout it.
The acting here is splendid. Hill is a wonder, and he manages to hold his own here, which is really impressive since he’s never acted before. As for the rest of the cast, it’s probably likely that all four of the adult actors here could nab Oscar nominations. It’s difficult to pinpoint just who the best performance here is from, but it’s a neck and neck competition between Balfe and Hinds. Balfe does a lovely job of channeling motherly instincts but she also gets some big show stopping scenes that are a knockout. As for Hinds, he is kind of the film’s emotional center, and considering Hinds has been in the business a long time and has often gone unsung, this is the role of a lifetime.
Branagh is such an interesting figure in Hollywood. He’s a damn fine actor when he’s called to the challenge, but as a filmmaker, his body of work ranges from Shakespearean period pieces to big budget fare. It’s strange to think that the same man who made Henry V also made Thor. This is also the same man whose last movie was Artemis Fowl, and Belfast will certainly wash the taste of that atrocity out of our mouths. This is Branagh’s finest hour yet. The artistry on display here is undeniable. It’s really amazing what can be done with black and white these days (Mank won the cinematography Oscar last year), and Belfast manages to not only deliver gorgeous imagery with black and white but also mix black and white and color and it’s a marvel. Visuals aside, there really isn’t a beat that this film misses; each development feels beautifully developed ; each laugh or tear is earned. It’s truly a rich experience.
So yeah, Belfast works wonders. It’s a beautiful little movie in which, by golly, just about everything works. Every tone the film sets out to hit, it hits it beautifully. It’s a film that could’ve been sentimental and corny but is anything but. All the more impressive is how Branagh manages to depict a family, tell a history lesson, and provide insight into his upbringing and manage to deliver characters that we grow to learn and care about all in the matter of 100 minutes. I probably could’ve watched 100 more.
Leave a Reply