The latest drama movie from Kenneth Branagh is a personal love letter to his childhood city, and stands as an enjoyable slice of life against the backdrop of a politically charged time. Set in Northern Ireland during the late ‘60s, many may look at Belfast and consider it too sentimental, and not detailing the despair or communal divide that you’d expect a film set during the Troubles to get into. While there may be a few cases of rose-tinted black and white glasses in this movie, Belfast at its heart, stands as a brilliantly performed, delicately written family drama that is a delight to watch.
Perhaps what makes Belfast so captivating is the fact that it puts family at the front and centre of the action, instead of political unrest, breaking expectations while also offering a fresh perspective of that time period. Written by Branagh, Belfast feels generational in its script as we see a family in different life stages essentially move into their next steps, and have change forced upon them both by time and by the violence happening at their doorsteps.
The year is 1969, and the city of Belfast is caught up in the riots that kickstarted the three decades of the Troubles. The film opens on a domestic terrorist attack showing a group of Ulster loyalists targeting Catholics. A young boy, Buddy (Jude Hill), sees his once-safe home street become barricaded and patrolled by police. However, that doesn’t stop him from still being a kid. Despite the external conflict, Buddy’s relationship with Belfast is very wholesome and meaningful. He experiences his first love, plays with his friends and spends time with his caring grandmother (Judi Dench) and wise grandfather (Ciaran Hinds). However, his life truly changes once financial troubles clash with the situation outside his window.
Buddy’s mother (Caitriona Balfe) often hides from the taxman, and his father (Jamie Dornan) travels to England for his work frequently. A choice must be made on whether to leave Belfast or not, leaving Buddy in the helpless position – as you often are when you are a kid – of having no say in the decision of goodbyes. Belfast truly shines in these moments between the family.
Buddy’s mother and father’s dynamic is dramatic and intensely emotional. On the other hand, you can’t help but smile at Buddy’s antics, and there is a beautiful charm to his grandparent’s relationship. The story feels a lot like other delicately put together ‘slice of life’ films such as Isao Takahata’s Only Yesterday, making you appreciate small moments in your life in tandem with the hardships of simply growing up.
However, Belfast falters when it tries too hard to tie in the Troubles into its central conflict. There is a leading antagonist in this script, Billy Clanton (Colin Morgan), who stands as the ringleader in the story’s ongoing neighbourhood street violence. Despite playing a major role in the story’s turning point, he is hardly seen in the film. The supposed foreboding presence of him and just conflict, in general, comes out of left field once it hits the screen.
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Once the Troubles take central stage in the script, the story never adapts or gets grittier. There is no expression of pain or outrage, and in many ways, Belfast feels too safe at this point, as if it is a packaged product instead of a live and authentic experience.
However, despite its midpoint mistakes, Belfast is a stunningly shot film. Each frame shows beauty in the simple moments, such as rain dripping from rooftops or school shoes hitting against the worn pavement. Branagh’s love for the city shines through in the cinematography, bringing his evident fond memories of Belfast to life.
The ensemble acting throughout the production is also admirable. Hill’s take on Buddy is heart-warming, cheeky and is, in short, a joy to watch. Similarly, Judi Dench and Ciaran Hinds steal the scenes they appear in with their overall presence and likeability.
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Belfast isn’t a challenging or hard-hitting watch, but it will make your heart thump through its universal themes. The change we see in the family is a great contrast to actual changes we see happen to the quiet neighbourhood street during the Troubles. Change is scary, and sometimes it’s a forced, unnatural thing that hurts. However, memories and family continue to stand as beautiful moments in time.
A beautifully shot sentimental journey that’ll make you appreciate the small joys in life.