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 JackWritten 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.
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
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
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.