Kimberly Reyes takes a look at Belfast, Kenneth Branagh’s semi-autobiographical film.
Writing this review was initially stressful to me as an American. Although I’ve lived in both the North and the South of Ireland, I’m fairly convinced that I have no business writing about the complexity of Northern Irish politics. Luckily Kenneth Branagh’s family-driven, largely apolitical film assuaged any fears I may have had of overstepping.
Belfast is based on Branagh’s (the Belfast-born writer, director, and co-producer of the film) early life and follows an Irish Protestant family in their close-knit, Protestant and Catholic 1960’s community. The family consists of nine-year-old Buddy (a fictionalized Branagh), played by the adorable Jude Hill, Ma (Caitriona Balfe), Pa (Jamie Dornan), Pop (Ciarán Hinds), Granny (Judie Dench), and Buddy’s older brother Will (Lewis McAskie). Pretty much everyone else in the radius of their home and the children’s schools serves as their extended family.
Pa works in England and wants to leave Belfast for England or Australia as The Troubles reach their front door. Ma initially rebuffs the idea of emigration as she explains, “we can’t all leave, there’d be nobody left but the nutters!” Buddy is mostly oblivious to the mortal dangers around him, focusing on his social standing in school and his first crush. Beyond his playful whims, we also see Buddy as a deeply feeling young boy with strong ties to his grandparents. In fact, the most touching scenes in the film are between Buddy and his grandparents, who he must leave behind if his parents are to move.
Nostalgia runs high throughout the film with Branagh setting a reflective mood from the very beginning. The first scene in the film consists of color shots of modern-day (tourist destination) Belfast which transition into a gorgeously shot, black and white past (as Belfast-native Van Morrison’s music plays). This is a clever way of letting the audience know what Branagh is offering: cinema-made memories and not investigative journalism, or a history lesson.
Many early reviewers felt that Belfast sugarcoated The Troubles but considering that the main character is a child, it’s fair to accept that the strength of his relationships would cast a shadow over the day-to-day grit and adult drama around him. There is a clear sense of menace and danger yet, similar to Derry Girls, politics plays background to the familiar and stable bonds of childhood.
Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds give absolutely heartbreaking performances and Jamie Dornan is, and has always been, a formidable actor. “I grew up six miles outside of Belfast,” Dornan told the Hollywood Foreign Press in 2020. “Nothing affects me more than when I go home to that land. It’s like totally deep within my soul, and any opportunity I have to get back to that land, I take.” Hopefully this is the beginning of a new chapter in his career, one that brings him back home more often, with more opportunity to revisit the complexity of earlier work like The Fall.
Branagh gets a bit carried away with sentimentality every now and then, and Buddy’s older brother is a terribly underdeveloped character in a family-centered film, but this story won’t leave anyone going in with an open heart disappointed.
Belfast is released in cinemas from 21st January 2022.