Kenneth Branagh is a prolific, if not always successful, director who has a valid claim of elevating modern adaptations of Shakespeare due to his early self-directed work (alongside his theatrical career). But in recent years Branagh has been spotty at best with his directorial efforts, ranging from the solid albeit nothing special adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, to the dreadful Artemis Fowl adaptation that thankfully went largely unnoticed when it dropped on Disney Plus. But Belfast seemed like a whole different beast for Branagh, not studio mandated, not Shakespeare, but something deeply personal and authentic, the likes of which has been absent from Branagh’s filmography.
The film follows Buddy, a pseudo-stand in for Branagh, and his family on the advent of The Troubles that wrecked Ireland during the latter half of the 20th century. This semi-autobiographical tale documents childhood innocence being torn apart not only due to the political strife and turmoil in the area, but the cold reality of death and loss as Buddy’s grandad, Pops, succumbs to illness. Alongside Buddy’s childhood nativity and obliviousness to the world surrounding him, we see a fracturing but not completely broken relationship between Ma and Pa, his parents who directly have to confront the situation in Ireland as well as the debts Pa has accrued due to tax issues and the absence of Pa during his working stints “across the water” in England.
If it isn’t already clear, there’s a sense of nostalgia that tinges the whole film. Opening with some beautifully colourful and textured shots of modern day Belfast before transporting the viewer to the black-&-white backstreets of the Ireland of the past; Branagh informs the viewer of what this film is, a testament to the past. While there has been much discourse about the use of Black and White cinematography in modern cinema, whether it’s done for vapid artistic flourish or for a deeper textual meaning. And while this isn’t the best use of black and white in recent years, or even in 2021 (thanks to Mike Mills’s C’mon C’mon), I would argue that this choice does have significant purpose in Belfast. It represents a childish binary, an homage to classic cinema, and a visual representation of history. It adds a sentimental depth to the whole film, evoking the idea of the distance between the now 61-year old Branagh and his childhood. This idea is further enhanced due to the specific uses of colour, which come from Buddy’s trips to the cinema and the theater. These moments demonstrate a love for the craft and show how little inconsequential moments in life can inspire a life-long passion and fire within someone as it did for Branagh, and in this I think these moments are some of the film’s strongest.
While the film focuses primarily around Jude Hill’s Buddy, the powerhouse of film is easily Caitríona Balfe’s performance as Ma. She captures the raw, emotive quality of a tortured mother. Trapped as a single mother, caring for her children while their father is away at work, while also having to care for Pa, dealing with the consequences of his back-tax, whittling away the debt while trying to start their life anew going forward. All while dealing with the political turmoil and strife going on, literally outside her front door. Balfe traverses this complex role with ease, creating a fully fleshed out character that operates largely in the background. Jamie Dornan plays off Balfe’s Ma perfectly as Pa, with the scenes of these two together, often arguing in whispers as their children sleep upstairs, being some of the best and most emotive in the film. Unfortunately I felt Hill was the weak link in the film, which feels somewhat unfair to say seeing as he’s only 11 years old and far and away a better actor than I will ever be. But in the film, his performance just didn’t really click for me, he serves the story well and is far from bad, but I struggled to connect to his performance in the way I have done with other child actors (sorry for the C’mon C’mon comparison again but Woody Norman in that was one of the best performances from a child actor I’ve ever seen). Rounding out what can be called the core cast is Judi Dench & Ciarán Hinds as Granny and Pop, with Hinds delivering a wonderful performance that stands as the emotional backbone of the film. Hinds delivers his lines in such a way, with a wistful and comedic timing, that makes every line feel so special and impactful. It’s clear from the script that Branagh has a lot of love and reverence for his grandfather and this comes through abundantly in the film.
Overall if you don’t get around to watching Belfast, I don’t think you’re missing out on anything special. It’s not in the echelon of The Godfather and won’t go down in history as an all-time great film, but with that being said it’s still worth your time. It’s a special, sentimental film that captures such a raw beauty and admiration that it feels life-affirming. In an era where Branagh is directing films like Cinderella, Artemis Fowl and Murder on the Orient Express; Belfast feels like an outlier. Something real, something authentic, and while it doesn’t necessarily hit the nail on the head it captures a feeling that feels so vacant in modern mainstream filmmaking.