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‘Belfast’ – Review

‘Belfast’ – Review


When it comes to the notion of the thespian turned director the pinnacle doesn’t get any higher than Sir Kenneth Branagh. The noted actor, writer, producer and director is lauded for his work both on and behind the camera and now he brings to the screen a deeply personal story inspired by his own life of one young boy growing up in the turbulent Troubles in Belfast. And this one will pull at your heartstrings from the very first moment.

A semi-autobiographical film that chronicles the life of a working-class family and their young son’s childhood during the tumult of the late 1960s in the Northern Ireland capital.

As an actor and director, they don’t come with more majesty than the legendary Sir Kenneth Branagh. A veteran of stage and screen, Branagh has long championed the arts and their production and has tackled a variety of projects over many different genres. Unafraid to explore narrative to its fullest, his is a career that you cannot pigeonhole and his work speaks for himself. Now at the age of 61, he makes to look back on his life and youth with the semi-autobiographical film Belfast and it’s an utter work of art. Mixing the trauma of Ireland’s infamous Troubles as seen through the eyes of a young child, Belfast is an intimate look at family, community, connection and what makes a home and its story is sure to bring tears to your eyes.

As a cinematic experience, Belfast was not what I was expecting. It’s a deeply dramatic, yet entirely warm story of one family living through extraordinary times and told in a very unique frame of view. Told from the perspective of 9-year-old Buddy, who is played in an extraordinary debut by the young Jude Hill, Belfast is constructed like a fairy tale of sorts with its young protagonist at the centre as he grows in a volatile and changing world. With a unique mix of childhood innocence set against very fraught times, we see a young Buddy living his life aware of, yet at the same time oblivious to the greater events around him and it makes for a very interesting narrative choice from Branagh. The film’s dream-like style is also complemented by the stark black and white cinematography of Haris Zambarloukos which gives Belfast a very artistic leaning and heightens the drama and emotion at the centre of the story.

In bringing this deeply personal story of Belfast to the big screen, Branagh enlists some of the best theatrical talent working today. In the roles of Ma and Pa, the parents to young Buddy, Branagh casts Caitríona Balfe and Jamie Dornan and the two make for a perfect couple on-screen. As Ma, Buddy’s mother, Caitríona Balfe is a vision of beauty, understanding and tenaciousness. Living in Belfast her whole life she is a woman who is a central component of her small confined neighbourhood and who has sheltered her young family from the poverty that has surrounded them. Now with the rising violence that surrounds them, she’ll do anything in her power to protect her family and her love has a sternness and an edge to it as all good mothers display when raising their young. Balfe has a lot to handle as the mother of two misfit young son’s and her love for her neighbourhood and home is a defining part of her character and she expresses a role that is deeply personal and feminine in its performance.

As Buddy’s Dad, Pa, Jamie Dornan is a strong male role model in his life, but he’s also an entirely human and somewhat flawed character. Desperate to give his children a better life he spends much of his time away in London working as a joiner, and so it is Ma who spends much of her time raising their young sons. Pa also has his own deep flaws as a gambler and his occurred debts have caused much pain for his family and Branagh does not hold back in showcasing these flaws on screen. But even with his failings, Pa is a good man who knows right from wrong and who understands the danger of the Troubles and his stance as a Protestant in this conflicted conflict and he’s unwilling to cast stones at his neighbours. As Pa, Dornan gives a very courageous and honest performance and he gives this film a masculine balance to Balfe’s femininity.

Also present and a key part in the story are Buddy’s grandparents, Granny played by the legendary Dame Judi Dench and Pop, played by noted Irish actor and Branagh’s contemporary Ciarán Hinds. As the elder residents of Buddy’s thriving community, Granny and Pop are a pair of doting old lovebirds who care deeply for each other and their family and who have many lessons to pass on to Buddy and his family. Growing up around them, Buddy spends considerable time with his grandparents and their life lessons leave a lasting impression on him. Both Dench and Hinds are perfectly matched and present a great sense of worldliness to Belfast’s narrative and are essentially the glue that holds their family together.

And finally standing as the central character in Belfast is the delightful Jude Hill as Buddy and he’s perfectly cast in the role. Standing in as a reflection of Branagh’s own life growing up in Belfast in the turbulent era of the Troubles in the late 1960s, Buddy is the character by which the audience enters and views the events of the narrative that unfolds before us. Hill brings a terrific sense of childlike innocence and wonder and is almost unaware of the events that are surrounding him. For him, it’s like a game and time and time again he finds himself in plenty of trouble due to his misfit actions. But Buddy’s not a bad kid and he has a tremendous heart and a great love for the people of his community. Through this story we see him grow up, encounter a sense of first love and find a sense of magic in the place he calls home. Hill is a perfect stand-in for a young Branagh and his genuine performance shine through completely.

Belfast is a beautiful story of family, community and what it means to find a home. It is a story that is a thoughtful portrait of past nostalgia, while also being entirely contemporary at the same time. It’s beautifully delivered and packed out with heart and love and all those who watch will be sure to think about their own lives, families and home and hold those memory and those people just a little bit closer to their hearts. It’s the film we could all use in our lives right now and is a cinematic experience that will leave its mark on your heart.

Image: Universal Pictures