Kenneth Branagh has always been a risk-taker when it comes to film. His work as a director has covered a wide range of subjects; Shakespeare, classic movie monsters, sci-fi, action, murder mysteries, more Shakespeare, Marvel, and others. Still, Belfast may be the biggest risk he has taken on yet. The reason, this isn’t just another film, it is a semi-autobiographical page straight from the memories of his youth. His fingerprints are on every frame of this film.
Branaugh transports viewers to a place and time he holds dear even though it has a tumultuous past. It is an affecting tribute to his family, his neighborhood, film, and the whole city of Belfast. It targets a spot in our hearts and minds fondly reserved for our own reflections of youth. And, while his memories are not ours they may just feel as if they are. They revolve around things that many hold tenderly. As we look back the memories of our youth often become softened and blurred with age, removing the rougher edges. Our childhood homes become castles, our parents heroes, and our families saints. Belfast captures this and allows us to ‘remember’ vicariously.
What Branaugh does best here is often what he doesn’t do. He avoids skipping into cloying sentimentality. There is no denying that Belfast pulls the heartstrings. You probably will not notice while fully engaged in the daily doings of amicable characters who we cannot help spending time with. While Branaugh is playing you heartstrings like a harp, it is hard to imagine minding him doing so.
A calculated level of restraint is seen throughout. A genuineness is found in scenes which feel lived in and natural. Branaugh plops us down on a chair in the room as part of the family to observe and take it all in. While there is plenty of stirring dialog it is delivered it is often the quieter moments that land strongest. There’s not a flashy character to be found or a shot that stands out as a pretentious way. It is easy to fall in love with.
Belfast rides on the performance of newcomer, Jude Hill who plays Buddy (aka Branaugh as a child). If he fails, the film fails. There’s something about the youthful gaze and wonder in his eyes that screams authenticity. It’s as if he’s not playing a part, but living the film. He has a charm and innocence that fits perfectly in this stroll through Branaugh’s past.
Whether it is a chat with his troublesome cousin Moira (Lara McDonnell ) about religious strife or a sweet moment with his mother or just the look of pure wonder on his face as he takes in all the magic of film at the local cinema, Hill delivers. While many children are overlooked during Oscar season, his performance demands to be recognized.
The cast is tremendous from top to bottom. Caitriona Balfe, as Ma, is spectacular as a mother and wife burdened with the task of keeping the family together as Pa (Jamie Dornan) is in England for work. Balfe conveys the tenacity of a woman worn down by the daily grind who is always ready to dust off to do what is needed to protect the family; be it serving as their accountant or pulling Buddy out of a bad situation. And through it all she retains her femininity as displayed in a glorious singing/dance scene between her and Dornan where he croons ‘Everlasting Love.’ The scene is surely to be one of the most talked about. A touch of sexiness in a life full of tribulations.
Judi Dench as Granny and Ciarán Hinds as Pop both play a special role in the development of Buddy’s life. In their modest home his grandparents are a constant presence, dispensing wisdom along the way. The ensemble captures the human soul – throughout loving warmer moments to the harsher instances of the religious turmoil they face. Every character on screen feels like someone you know or could know.
The film takes a subjective perspective while never spelling that out. Branaugh abandoned a voiceover that would have left little or no room for interpretation. By nixing it we are allowed to take it all in and process it through our own memories. We are always seeing the world through the eyes of a child, Buddy. But not literally. It is never that heavy handed. We’re inside his memories seeing his versions of reality he has stored away.
The illusion is further enhanced by the gorgeous cinematography of Haris Zambarloukos. He shoots in stunning black and white – only small moments of color are used. Natural light hugs each character and adds a warmth and a hazy softness to family settings. The way the camera moves propels this subjective point of view. Beautiful long, wide, static shots allow the mise en scène effectively and artistically to say much more than dialogue ever could. The composition of the shots conveys a sense of the setting, the characters and also the rhythm of life in the household. Editor Úna Ní Dhonghaíle is careful to use these sparingly to avoid abusing them while surrounding us in the ambient sounds of Belfast to place us right on their block.
Branaugh makes sure we never feel like outside observers, but part of the family in the most inviting of ways. But not everything is roses in Belfast. Marital strains caused by financial hardships and the religious battle on the streets are constant reminders of a more grounded reality often forgotten by a child.
It’s impressive just how much the film does cover and it’s short running time. Religious conflict between Roman Catholic nationalist and Protestant unionists adds moments that are intense and will have your heart racing. Gentle moments of romance kindly looked upon across generations. The moments in the cinema are pure movie magic for anyone movie lovers who grew up going on family movie outings. Through Buddy’s eyes we see the heroism of a man, the tenacity of a mother, the wisdom of his elders, the misguided advice of his cousin and the innocence of a child.
Nothing about actual Belfast seems (in the nicest way) all that special – the city, their home, the people. It was a regular working class city, much like the one I grew up in. No privilege, just a lot of hard work. Belfast looks past the rough exterior to find the value underneath. The film made me wish I had the opportunity to share it with my mother and grandmother before they passed away. It caused me to reflect and appreciate those mundane moments that in reality were some of the very best. Even through the nostalgia, there’s something about it all that rings true. It’s not just a love letter to cinema or Belfast, it is also a love letter to all those family members that fought to deliver a good life to their children. I look forward to my next visit to Belfast.
‘Belfast’ captures the wonder and magic of youth while reminding us the sacrifices of our family. It is a touching and tender film. Beautifully shot with incredible performances across throughout.