A film review by Craig J. Koban December 28, 2021

Rank: #5


2021, PG-13, 98 mins.

Caitriona Balfe as Ma  /  Judi Dench as Granny  /  Jude Hill as Buddy  /  Jamie Dornan as Pa  /  Ciarán Hinds as Pop  /  Lara McDonnell as Moira  /  Gerard Horan as Uncle Jack

Written and directed by Kenneth Branagh

Coming off the qualitative drudgery of last year's truly wrongheaded young adult sci-fi adventure ARTEMIS FOWL, Kenneth Branagh's BELFAST represents a masterful return to form for the acclaimed British filmmaker.  This is also  arguably his most deeply personal film to date.  

Drawn from the actor/director's own experiences living as a child during the worst stages of the ethno-nationalist conflict that gripped Northern Ireland for three decades, BELFAST reminded me an awful lot of the terribly overrated JOJO RABBIT in the sense that both films give us portals into a dark underbelly of history that are seen largely through a child's eyes.  The difference with BELFAST is that Branagh's work is much more finely crafted and manages to marry the horrors of the era in question with a touching and sometimes amusing coming of age tale of a family trying to the fend of the violence that permeated their time.  I found BELFAST to be a supremely moving, technically astounding, and compelling memoir of The Troubles that griped Northern Ireland alongside being a love ballad to the powers of family and a community that work together to survive the hellish ordeals of the period. 

BEFLAST opens with vivid panoramic shots of the modern day titular city that then brilliantly segues into the past (the film goes from color to black and white in one swift and nifty transition).  Branagh's young cinematic doppelganger here is Buddy (played wonderfully by newcomer Jude Hill), who lives in a particular area of Belfast that houses both Protestants and Catholics in fairly equal measure.  He lives with his mother (Caitriona Balfe), father (Jamie Dornan) and older brother, Will (Lew McAskie), but his dad is frequently absent from his home life, stemming from the fact that he works away in England to support his family and is home primarily on weekends.  Buddy's father also has a rather sunny disposition regarding his Catholic neighbours, which doesn't sit well with other pockets of militant minded Protestants.  Everything comes to a head in August of 1969 when The Troubles erupts on Buddy's own block, culminating in bloody riot with rampant property destruction and looting.  Predictably, all of this is frightening to the young and impressionable lad. 

Of course, most of BELFAST is seen through the prerogative of this 9-year-old, meaning that he can't quite comprehend and process the politics of the conflict itself, which complicates matters for him and his family.  Buddy does find solace in not only his father's words of wisdom and preaching of tolerance, but also through the loving and kind hearted teachings of his grandparents (played by a collectively sublime Judi Dench and Ciaran Hinds).  Having direct ties to various family members makes it extremely difficult for Buddy's clan to contemplate a move far away from Belfast, but with the mounting stresses of more violence to come it becomes more and more apparent to his parents that something will unavoidably have to give regarding a plan to ensure their safety and well being moving forward.  And leaving Belfast for either England or Canada is not as easy as it sounds.  This family won't just have to geographically uproot themselves, but will also have to segregate themselves from a place and culture that has become a part of their DNA for multiple generations. 



I've always found chronicling Branagh's career to be so compelling in terms of its limitless variety.  This man has done everything from Shakespeare to reboot adaptations of Tom Clancy and Agatha Christie (with his recent and very underrated MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS) to his jumping into the world of Disney (his life action version of CINDERELLA remains one of the best of the recent bunch) and the Marvel Cinematic Universe with helming THOR (for my mind, still the finest God of Thunder solo outing).  BELFAST marks a more refreshingly low key and intimate change of pace for him in terms of tapping into a tumultuous period of his own past and how that must have petrified and confused him as a young man in equal measure.  The smaller scaled trappings of this film doesn't mean that it's not grand in its storytelling ambitions, though, but rather that it's more insular in focus as it explores how a community finds strength to combat the escalating dread of this religious conflict.  BELFAST is, at face value, a historical drama, to be sure, but I found it to be more about an inseparable family and how two parents discover ways to deal with the turmoil that taints their lives.  In most respects, this film is a love ballad to people that are hopelessly on the receiving end of history versus an examination of the historical events in question. 

It would be easy for many critics to deride BELFAST for perhaps painting The Troubles in broad strokes.  If you're looking for a deep and penetrating historical assessment of this Northern Ireland conflict that permeated the region from the 60s to the 90s then, well, this is not the film to seek out.  What I personally took away from BELFAST was that it was attempting to process what this conflict was like for Branagh as a kid struggling to make sense of something so senseless, and on those levels I found the film to be keenly observant and deeply understanding of the woes that these characters feel.  And the film is not just about this precocious and wide eyed boy being literally caught in the crosshairs of a bloody time in the past.  It's also about the mutual bond between his parents, who constantly fight over what most parents gripe over (financial responsibilities), but it's their intense love and devotion to one another that keeps this family unit afloat.  I think that some historical dramas often fail to humanize themselves with tales of the everyday and ordinary people most immediately impacted by the larger events around them.  The pressures of this family are so easily relatable, despite them being displaced by time and culture:  Do they flee away from the neighborhood that's been everything for them for so long and start fresh and over or do they stay put out of loyalty to their city and family, but face never-ending anxiety moving forward?  I admire films about how simple choices (and the mentally taxing pressures that come with making said choices) can have such seismic impacts on a family's well being.   

Branagh - being an impeccably astute actor's director - has cast his film resoundingly well, with the most crucial performance in the film being from young Jude Hill, who evokes such an irresistible youthful charm and vigor, but at the same time has to authentically relay Buddy's insecurities and frightening uncertainties about what's to come with his family's future.  He's paired well with Caitriona Balfe and Jamie Dornan as his parents, with the latter in particular who seems to be going successfully out of his way as of late to distance himself from his charisma black hole presence in the FIFTY SHADES OF GREY trilogy with one finely tuned performance after another that - maybe like a Robert Pattinson before him - shows that he's a better actor than maybe we've all given him credit for.  This mother and father are crucial players in Buddy's life, but they're also integral to the storytelling momentum.  Buddy idolizes his parents and looks to them to help extrapolate the complexities of The Troubles.  BELFAST understands that this conflict was dreadfully brutal, but during it - as is the case with most historical events - there were innocent children like Buddy that only wanted to visit their grandparents, watch STAR TREK on TV, go to movies, read comic books, and have normal childhoods that were unfortunately and tragically upended by forces too large, swift, and cruel for them to comprehend.   

Branagh has also made an exquisite looking film, with Haris Zambarloukos's lush and dreamlike black and white cinematography (which switches to color here and there for dramatic impact) providing for a moody, but romantic sheen the proceedings that makes BELFAST such an immersive experience that genuinely feels like it transports us to a different time and place.  The technical prowess of this film should not surprise anyone (Branagh has always been a filmmaker that likes to push the envelope, especially for how he shot films like HAMLET in the 90s and the aforementioned MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS in supremely pristine 65mm celluloid, a virtually extinct format).  That BELFAST is a work of painterly imagery that stirs the senses and is easy on the eyes should be of no surprise to anyone familiar with Branagh's work, but what really and profoundly struck the biggest chord with me was that it balanced historical tragedy with a surprisingly poignant, crowd pleasing tale of a boy and his tightly rooted family trying to journey away from it.  BELFAST ends with the following title cards: "For the ones who stayed. For the ones who left. And for all the ones who were lost.”  This film is a reminder that we're not just defined by where we live, but rather how we live our lives to honor one's heritage.  

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