Belfast is not only one of the year’s very best films, but Branagh’s finest film to date.
This review of the film Belfast does not contain spoilers.
The adage is that you should write what you know, right? Kenneth Branagh’s semi-autobiographical film about growing up in his home city of Belfast in 1969 channels those memories. His vision is a joyous celebration and a refreshing critical eye of the family and the community he grew up in. A film that is brimming with those wholly mindful moments that remind you what makes life worth living. I loved every second of Belfast.
Branagh captures the film’s feel of innocence through the eyes of Buddy (played by newcomer Jude Hill), an adorable boy with blonde hair and curious eyes for the world around him. In the film’s sensational opening, the young lad takes in his loving family, the extended protection of playing in the streets under the neighbor’s watchful eye. Not to mention, the sobering world of intolerance.
Buddy is growing up during a time that kicked off the “Troubles.” For nearly three decades, self-identified nationalists (Irish or Roman Catholics) and self-identified unionists (Protestants) came to violent confrontations in Belfast neighborhoods. His mother, “Ma” (a wonderful Caitríona Balfe), watches in horror as armed men sprint down the Street, and a car is used as a molotov cocktail.
There is a real sense of authentic family and relationships. This is a tough life, but sometimes a rewarding one. Buddy’s father, “Pa” (Jamie Dornan), works in England to make ends meet, coming back every two weeks for a few days. He teaches his sons to be careful, but it’s the grandparents where you feel the love. Granny (Judi Dench) and Pops (Ciarán Hinds) make sure he is wrapped with that feeling. In what will go down as one of the veteran’s actor’s best roles, Ciarán teaches his son how to use the ambiguity of poor penmanship to raise his math scores and impress the eye of Buddy’s affection.
You will see many movies or television shows that do not realize how important jobs are to raise a family. That’s not the case here and is married beautifully together. Dornan and Balfe have real-life disagreements and troubles. Dornan is horrible with money. They don’t spend enough time together, leaving Balfe’s Ma to raise her boys and prevent them from joining a gang — which can mean inevitable jail or death. He wants to move his family overseas, but she wants to stay within the only community she has ever known and is afraid of how they may be accepted.
That’s where Branagh’s film excels. All Dornan’s Pa sees is family having to live in a war zone during a conflict that will not end anytime soon. All Balfe sees is, even with all the oppression, a community that will still have her family’s back — they could meet the same oppression across the way without any social supports.
At the film’s core is how innocence, family, and oppression intersect while filling those cracks with those moments we let pass us by that the adults here make damn sure their kids will experience. It’s those moments of community gatherings, grandparents dancing, making the kids run up and down a field to tire them out, and watching films together that we remember. Those moments are few and far between. They have added weight because Branagh has created a portrait of a family in crisis, that has spent so much time apart, and that joyous patchwork can no longer hold.
The performances are plentiful. I’m certain Dornan and Dench will receive the most praise for their popularity and reputation. But it’s Ciarán Hinds’ loving grandfather role that is always Hollywood gold that is the most celebrated. Even if it’s a cliche at this point, it’s always a welcome one. However, it’s Caitríona Balfe who gives the film’s best performance as a woman keeping her family afloat and with too much on her plate.
Belfast is one of the year’s best films. It expertly blends genres like the light-hearted coming of age and sobering drama. Along with a phenomenal cast and being beautifully shot, it’s Branagh’s finest film.