Written and directed by Kenneth Branagh, Belfast is a heartwarming treat, with an economical running time: here’s our review.
There’s a moment a little while into Kenneth Branagh’s latest film, Belfast, where I didn’t quite notice Dame Judi Dench. It’s a criminal confession really, mitigated by the fact that Branagh frames his movie with unusual divides and slightly off-kilter angles, having characters have conversations in the background while others are busy at the fore. Thus, when Dench – brilliant as always, of course – starts to speak, my head jerked to the other side of the screen where she’d been quietly minding her own business. I found it quite a moment: both times I’ve seen the film now, she had the same surprise impact.
I bring this up to get across just what a big screen movie Belfast is. Never mind that this is one of Branagh’s more economical projects: the cinematic ambition is not shortchanged.
The film is effectively, in all but name, a very thinly veiled autobiographical snapshot of his life as a nine-year old in Belfast. Set in 1969, the movie – that Branagh also wrote – opens up with a glorious wide shot of the entire city, the camera gobbling up the landscape. Then, it drops gently into black and white as we head to a small street, and violence quickly breaks out.
It’s an arresting opening for a film that threatens to tonally stick around in dark places, a tale of a multi-generational family growing up against the backdrop of the Troubles. Where religion is quickly established as a dividing line, and a working class family makes do.
In this case, we have Cairtriona Balfe and Jamie Dornan as the parents of young Buddy, played by terrific breakthrough young performer Jude Hill. Then there’s Buddy’s grandparents, Ciaran Hinds and the aforementioned Dench, and a whole bunch of characters in the community who make them feel welcome and, let’s just say, less so in some cases.
It’s a bubbling snapshot of life that Branagh frames through the eyes of young Buddy, often keeping his camera low. And what that opening gives way too is a quite superb family drama, bristling with wit and not short of gutsy laugh out loud moments. The interplay between the characters is warm and quick, the conversations oftentimes quickly brought to a close by a razor-sharp punchline, and a dynamic that sees the older characters finding smiles where they can, and younger ones talking about surviving against a dangerous, intimidating backdrop.
What Branagh does though is make sure it’s all mixed together. There’s the delight of young Buddy as he gets to watch Star Trek on the telly or go to the movies. There’s the continual pressure his mum and dad face, the latter having to work away in England even as his family face threats to move away. The film melts into colour as they take a trip to the cinema, and slides back into black and white once they’re back home. It’s a taste of an everyday life, indiscriminately jumping between the highs and lows, even as more and more barbed wire seems to go up around them.
As much as this is Buddy’s tale in the film, we’re left in little doubt he has a huge extended family. Be it Ciaran Hinds imparting wisdom on the toilet, a tender conversation where we’re left in little doubt that the senior generation has as many stories of love and happiness, or a moment where his parents get to forget their problems for a night and just dance, it’s a wonderful mosaic of moments. The unifying thread being life in a city that Branagh brings to the screen with affection, for all its difficulties. His wide-eyed as he looks at the area, even as parts of it fall apart. Yet this could have been a very, very different film. That it emerges as warm, as human and as funny as it does is really something.
But this is Branagh’s story, told very much his way. His songbook zips happily to the events on screen, his cameras swirls when it needs to and just watches when it doesn’t, and the silences and human looks count just as much as the dialogue. He’s directed nearly 20 films now has Branagh, and I’ve liked a large number of them. But this, as much as it feels like a man delving back into his youth, hugely benefits from the experience he’s built up. As much what he chooses not to do, as what he does.
I loved Belfast. It may come and go off the screen in under 100 minutes – and that in itself is something to salute – but it’s going to hang around a whole lot longer than that. Do see it: on a big screen if possible.
Thank you for visiting! If you’d like to support our attempts to make a non-clickbaity movie website:
Buy our Film Stories and Film Stories Junior print magazines here.
Become a Patron here.