Director: Kenneth Branagh
Starring: Caitríona Balfe, Judi Dench, Jamie Dornan, Ciarán Hinds, Colin Morgan, Jude Hill
Run Time: 98 mins
Belfast is a coming-of-age drama directed by Kenneth Branagh who cites the film as one of his most personal works. This predominantly monochrome film centres on nine-year-old Buddy (newcomer Jude Hill), who lives in a community in the titular city in what he perceives as an idyll. He is left largely in the care of his mother (Caitriona Balfe) as his father (Jamie Dornan) works in England. His paternal grandparents (Ciaran Hinds and Judi Dench) regularly visit and in many ways help raise Buddy and his older brother, Will (Lewis McAskie).
The film is set at the start of The Troubles in 1969 and the film recounts the resulting division and disruption that occurs in Buddy’s community. The father, who has accumulated a large amount of debt, is offered a promotion at work. Wanting a better life for his family and to remove them from the conflict, he proposes moving abroad. The family contemplate this throughout the film, anxious that they will be seen as outsiders and having to leave their friends and family behind.
Belfast is a well-meaning and earnest drama that strikes parallels with John Boorman’s Hope and Glory, that was similarly told from a similarly child-like lens set against the backdrop of war. Branagh certainly pours himself into the project, taking inspiration from his own childhood. The sub-plots that Buddy experiences, such as trying to move up to the top two tables at school so that he can sit with his crush, are beautifully handled. Buddy is inspired from a harsh sermon at the start of The Troubles that his family attend, who delivers a ‘fork in the road’ speech, the rhetoric bears weight on him throughout the film as he ponders his choices. Branagh deftly balances the more innocent aspects of childhood with the temptation of immorality and Buddy finds himself dragged into uncomfortable situations that test his character.
Branagh has a clear love of cinema and the film captures the wonder that Buddy has for cinema. Buddy enjoys nothing more than going to ‘the pictures’ with his family and he experiences films such as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Branagh chooses to portray excerpts from these films in colour that reflect back on Buddy who views them from a monochrome view, connoting the wonder and transcendent experience that cinema can bring audiences.
There are some excellent performances, most notably from newcomer Jude Hill who captures the wonder and innocence of childhood perfectly. Caitriona Balfe and Jamie Dornan are also brilliant as the parents, at a ‘fork in the road’ in their lives with some tough choices ahead. They always try and do what’s right for each other and their children and perfectly balance the warm and caring nature of parenthood whilst also teaching their children valuable morals and life lessons. Both Judi Dench and Ciaran Hinds have received critical acclaim for their performances and the pair are reliably excellent as the grandparents. That said, Balfe and Dornan have the meatier roles and their performances are equally, if not more impressive.
Belfast runs into some issues though. It took me about half-an-hour to become accustomed to the filmic world that Branagh creates and doesn’t quite hit its stride straightaway. The use of black-and-white, interspersed with flashes of colour when Buddy heads to the cinema is an interesting stylistic choice but the opening credits are set in present-day Belfast, which doesn’t really work and comes across as odd as the film never comes full-circle at the end. The notion of condensing all of Buddy’s communities religious and political problems into one villainous character is also unnatural and the film would have worked better either without it or having ambiguous characters. There is an artificial quality to the film and it possesses a stage-play aesthetic at times, the barricades at the end of the family’s street resemblant of an exit stage.
Belfast is ultimately an enjoyable passion project from Branagh and the warm characters, performances and script are admirable. The film has received lots of awards talk, many regarding it as a strong contender. I can see why the film has this appeal as it represents a personal project for a director which always goes down well and it has a feel-good quality. That said, I don’t think the film is quite to that level. I’d have liked to have seen more nuance to the material and a more contemplative and morally grey edge to the film instead of the relatively straight-faced and earnest finished product. Taken on its own merits as a singular film without the context of the upcoming awards season, Belfast is an amiable effort from Branagh and there is certainly a lot to like but it has its flaws.