When we are young, the fuller picture of the world around us isn’t clear.
Things that affect us directly – things that happen on the street where we live, the other children in class, our families – become seared in our memories.
Understanding things that happen in the periphery simply have less significance because the impact is lesser.
Such is the case with Belfast, a semi-autobiographical film from writer/director Kenneth Branagh, whose remembrances of his home city in Ireland and the tumultuous civil war between Catholics and Protestants during the late 1960s are clouded by the shroud of youth.
It’s for this reason that Belfast works as a charming crowd-pleasing film in spite of its setting as the film is almost exclusively seen through the eyes of young Buddy, an elementary school student focused more on the girl he likes that sits at the front of the class than the rioting and violence that creeps just outside his door from the opening moments of the film.
Branagh makes the most personal, heartfelt feature of his illustrious career with Belfast, largely simple storytelling woven together in a series of vignettes about everyday life for Buddy, his older brother, Ma and Pa, as well as his grandparents on a single street in Belfast.
Nearly half the 97-minute film could be completely separated from what’s really happening outside the barricade that protects Buddy’s street from attacks. The true scope of the violence eludes the audience because it’s outside Buddy’s purview as viewers experience Belfast through his eyes, real or imagined.
Newcomer Jude Hill is a revelation as Buddy, a precocious actor that approaches every scene with a blending of kindness and childlike wonder and it’s the immediate attachment he’s able to create with an audience that makes viewers fearful for him and his family’s safety during the most trying of moments in Belfast that wouldn’t otherwise work so well.
Jamie Dornan gives a career-best effort as Buddy’s father, absent for much of the film due to working in London, but his presence in Belfast is felt long after he leaves as the steady hand wanting to do right by his family and find a better life for them even if it costs them their home in Ireland.
Caitroina Balfe is often electric as Ma, hiding her fragile state in front of her boys to a great extent as she exudes a matronly persona, but it’s in the one-on-one scenes opposite Dornan that Ma’s emotions are able to release even slightly and Balfe can truly showcase the wear and tear keeping her family safe during civil war has on Ma’s mental and emotional state.
Ciarán Hinds is perhaps the best performer in the entire film with a genuine warmth and wry sense of humor that leaps off the screen every time his Pop appears. The instant chemistry he’s able to develop with Hill as grandfather and grandson becomes a cornerstone of the entire film. An underutilized Dame Judy Dench as Hinds’ wife Granny has her moments, but never feels on the same level as the other main characters.
Belfast boasts strong production design and a pitch-perfect soundtrack penned by Belfast native Van Morrison that helps create the world of the film.
Where there’s a slight stumble, however, is in the cinematography from Haris Zamarloukos, which is bookended with over-sharpened, almost chamber of commerce level visuals in color that look like an advertisement to visit Belfast, perhaps a requirement for funding the film.
Almost all of the film is shot in black-and-white with a variation of sharpness to help accentuate the blurred lines between Buddy’s realities and the way he sees things, especially when he’s watching television, movies or theater that come across in shimmering technicolor to showcase just how fantastical Buddy’s world can be.
Without a doubt, Belfast will be a significant player come awards season as a frontrunner for the Best Picture Oscar with surefire nominations for Branagh in directing and screenplay. It’s quite possible that both Hinds and Dornan earn Best Supporting Actor nominations, while Balfe is the strongest acting contender of the ensemble.
Still expanding into more theaters over the course of the winter, Belfast is bound to be one of the more talked about dramas over the next three-to-four months and has cemented its spot as one of the 10 best films of 2021, making it a must see in theaters.