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Belfast (A Movie Review)

Updated: Jul 18, 2023

BELFAST (2021)

Starring Jude Hill, Caitríona Balfe, Jamie Dornan, Judi Dench, Ciarán Hinds, Colin Morgan, Lara McDonnell, Gerard Horan, Conor MacNeill, Turlough Convery, Gerard McCarthy, Lewis McAskie, Olive Tennant, Victor Alli, Josie Walker, Freya Yates, Nessa Eriksson, Charlie Barnard, Frankie Hastings, Máiréad Tyers, Caolan McCarthy and Ian Dunnett Jr.

Screenplay by Kenneth Branagh.

Directed by Kenneth Branagh.

Distributed by Focus Features. 97 minutes. Rated PG-13.

Kenneth Branagh has never really been known as a sentimental filmmaker. However, the new black and white (well, mostly black and white, more on that later) coming of age drama Belfast is obviously his most personal project to date.

Belfast is a semi-autobiographical work by the writer/director, showing a variation of his own childhood, growing up in Northern Ireland right in the middle of the violent tumult between Catholics and Protestants in the 1960s. It shows the anger, the riots, the bigotry, the splits of neighbor versus neighbor – and takes them all in through the innocent eyes of a nine-year-old boy.

It’s an explosive environment to grow up in, but Belfast also looks at the importance of extended family in life.

As noted about, Belfast is mostly filmed in drab, moribund black and white. There are a few exceptions, mostly scenes in which the little boy at the heart of the story is taken to show business events. First, his grandmother takes him to see a theatrical performance of A Christmas Carol, which adds a dash of color to the film. Later, when his family goes to see the movie Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the scenes from that 60s camp classic explode with vibrant colors, particularly in comparison to the monochromatic backdrop.

It’s a fairly obvious symbol – this young boy’s life is colorless until he discovers the true loves of his life – theater and film. Which, one would like to think, describes the film’s creator, as well.

The young boy is Buddy (Jude Hill), a lad with wide eyes and an open face who is taking in all that is going on around him. Not for nothing, but Hill is an absolutely adorable kid who doesn’t fall into so many child-actor traps. I assume that Branagh’s work as an actor himself allowed him to coax a smart, natural performance out of the boy.

His life pretty much revolves around his school, his neighborhood and his family. Pa (Jamie Dornan) and Ma (Caitríona Balfe) are working hard to make ends meet – Pa is going away to work in England for months at a time – however they obviously care for each other and their two boys deeply. Pa has also fallen into disfavor with one of the heads of the street revolution, and with the violence swirling around them, they are considering leaving the only home they have ever known and moving far away.

One reason they may stay are Granny and Pop (Judi Dench and Ciaran Hinds). They both have lived through too much to ever consider leaving their homes, added to the fact that Pop has been having medical issues. They make an adorable, sympathetic older couple, one with many years of love and acceptance behind them and a teasing, rock solid bond with each other and their homes. In fact, they work together so naturally that you can pretty much overlook the fact that Dame Judi is almost 20 years older than Hinds.

Of course, despite the violence and tumult going on, there is much joy as well. This is mainly shown through music – not surprisingly, Van Morrison suffuses the score. A late scene where Ma and Pa lip-sync and do a little dance routine to the hit Love Affair single “Everlasting Love” is simply enchanting. Also, family gatherings and time spent at the pub bring forth moments of pleasure in the midst of all the fighting.

In the end, the family must decide whether to stay or not – and I suppose if you have even the least knowledge of Branagh’s history, you can make a pretty good guess as to what they will choose.

However, Branagh does a fine job of recapturing a world that is surprisingly not all that far in the rearview mirror. Even in the midst of tumult and unrest, true love and beauty can be found. That’s a pretty nice lesson for all of us.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2021 All rights reserved. Posted: November 12, 2021.

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