Kenneth Branagh’s semi-autobiographical film revolves around young Buddy (Jude Hill), an ordinary and perfectly happy young boy living in Belfast with his mum (Caitríona Balfe) and dad (Jamie Dornan), whose life is irrevocably changed by the arrival of The Troubles in his hometown and as he witnesses all of the hostilities and fighting that flares up between the Catholics and the Protestants, Buddy’s family soon face the possibility of having to leave their home and to move to England.
I can’t really count Kenneth Branagh as one of my favourite directors. After all, I find Thor to be one of the weakest MCU films so far, Branagh’s adaptations of Cinderella and Murder on the Orient Express were good, though nothing particularly memorable, and the less said about the much maligned Artemis Fowl the better. But Belfast is, quite comfortably, his best film yet (though I admittedly haven’t seen many of his other films) and although I found myself getting a bit restless towards the end, I enjoyed and appreciated almost every minute of this film and was engrossed by so much of it all.
On the surface, Belfast really succeeds because it is all shot brilliantly. Branagh and his camera crew make the correct decision to film much of it through a child’s POV, often observing conversations through bannister slats or from near ground level, looking up at several looming authority figures, and the “shot composition” (am I using that word correctly?) is right on the money as a great many shots serve a purpose and everything is professionally framed, many of the shots emphasising just how much of a war zone Buddy’s street is becoming, patrols and passing helicopters included. Praise also definitely has to go to cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos because Belfast truly is a gorgeous looking film – one that quite rightly uses marvellous monochrome (as well as rare bouts of colour for the films-within-the-film as well as one theatrical performance) – and the whole feature is just gorgeous to look at.
In other areas, the film uses a Van Morrison soundtrack (just as Harold and Maude had a soundtrack that was 100% Cat Stevens) and all of his songs fit in nicely and looking at the acting, there are many excellent performances to be found; Jamie Dornan continues to distance himself from THAT trilogy quite nicely and he is strong and formidable, though occasionally funny, as Buddy’s dad, Judi Dench fully convinces in the part of Buddy’s grandma, Ciarán Hinds is appropriately grandfatherly – altogether wise, loving and occasionally mischievous – as the grandpa, and in the two most memorable roles, newcomer Jude Hill is a pleasure to watch as young Buddy as he appears as both a wisecracking rascal in the lighter scenes and also a scared, naive and vulnerable innocent when the danger hits and as the family matriarch, Caitríona Balfe delivers possibly the best performance of the film because she really dominates the screen and leaves us in no doubt that she’s a strong and formidable, though also caring and loving, woman who will steer her family through all the harsh times.
Despite also being a somewhat historical piece about the Troubles in Ireland, Belfast is primarily a coming-of-age/slice-of-life drama, reminiscent of films such as The 400 Blows, Angela’s Ashes and maybe even Cinema Paradiso, and it really soars in this regard. It’s particularly impressive because although I obviously didn’t go through any of what Buddy/Kenneth went through – being too young and not Irish – the film made me feel as though this actually was my childhood and I hope that other audience members feel the same way; while watching, I just couldn’t help but feel nostalgic since the film really got me thinking about past Christmases, being at school, first crushes, experiencing films and the cinema for the first time, and eavesdropping on adult conversations, sometimes through those bannister slats. The writing within this film is very strong (Branagh here also pens the screenplay) and while there is also tension and danger to be found throughout the feature, in its more intimate and sweet moments, Belfast really proves itself to be an absorbing tale about childhood, one that really lets us see events through a child’s eyes, and alongside the horror of the Troubles, there’s plenty of tenderness, wonder, joy and good feeling to be found as we spend time with Buddy’s tight knit family.