Belfast (2021) Review!!

Synopsis – A young boy and his working class family experience the tumultuous late 1960s.

My Take – British actor and filmmaker Sir Kenneth Charles Branagh has been around for a while. Gaining fame mainly for his several impressive Shakespeare adaptations, like Henry V (1989), Hamlet (1996), Love’s Labour’s Lost (2000) and As You Like It (2006), Branagh also found mainstream success by helming blockbusters like Thor (2011), Cinderella (2015) and Murder on the Orient Express (2017), the latter which also saw him don the famed Hercule Poirot role.

For his latest, free from big budgeted constrains, director Branagh has assembled a crew of frequent collaborators, including cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos, to tell a small semi-autobiographical coming of age story that celebrates his family and acts as a fitting tribute to hometown of his native Ireland, all the while as they found themselves swept up in the ethno-nationalist conflict known as The Troubles.

Shot in nostalgic black and white, effectively written and beautifully acted, the film is without a doubt one of his best films, and is made with great affection, considerable ambition and enough comic one-liners to make you forget that you’re watching a drama about seething sectarian hatreds.

Deservingly racking up seven Golden Globe nominations (winning Best Screenplay), and leading with eleven nominations at the 27th Critics’ Choice Awards, including Best Picture, Branagh’s love letter to the city in which he was born and raised is an obvious front runner for the upcoming Oscars.

Set in 1969, the story follows Buddy (Jude Hill), a 9-year-old boy belonging to a working class Northern Irish Protestant family, who is obsessed with football, dragons, comics and his brainy, dainty classmate, Catherine (Olive Tennant). Living in a mixed neighborhood with his parents Ma (Caitríona Balfe), Pa (Jamie Dornan) and older brother Will (Lewis McAskie), Buddy is especially close with his paternal grandparents, Granny (Judi Dench) and Pop (Ciarán Hinds).

But while Pa spends much of his time away in London working as a carpenter, it leaves Ma parenting diligently to create normalcy for the boys during tumultuous times which sees the growing troubles between the Protestants and Catholics. And with Pa refusing to commit to side, and the British army becoming a permanent fixture in the area, Buddy sees his family struggle with the dilemma of relocating from the only town they have ever called home.

Moving swiftly from his home to street to his schoolroom to a pub and back home, despite the surrounding tensions, the film never approaches anything resembling a harsh social drama. Instead, it is effortless and pleasantly presented, almost to the point of neutralizing conflict. It is actually at its best when nothing specifically tragic or Troubles-related is happening. Personally, I loved the scene in which Buddy is schooled by his cousin Moira (Lara McDonnell) on what to say if a stranger demands to know if he is Protestant or Catholic, does he lie or double-bluff with the truth?

The film’s script also showcases the importance of familial unity and emphasizes the effect a loving family can have on a small-town lad. Though the bonds connecting the principal characters are strained by outside forces, the family get some escapism at the films like One Million Years B.C. (1966), and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968), and even a trip to the theater to see A Christmas Carol.

Yes, some may feel that the film is overly sentimental or that it does not sufficiently conform to the template of political anger and despair considered appropriate for dramas about Northern Ireland and the Troubles.

But true to the film’s childlike perspective, director Branagh doesn’t want us to understand the tumultuous events unfolding in the background, but instead wants us to see the proceedings from Buddy’s imagination and experiences, including him mistakenly stealing a bar of Turkish delight and then getting involved in looting a box of washing powder from a riot-hit supermarket.

Here, director Branagh romanticizes his former home with a deeply felt affection, starting with the first images that show modern-day Belfast in a gorgeous color montage before transitioning to monochrome. Throughout the film, he injects notes of color into cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos’ stunning black-and-white images, often to denote moments when young Buddy feels inspired by art.

Beyond the personal reminiscing, the film also contains a universal message about tolerance and acceptance. Pa’s desire to resist taking sides in a conflict and respect everyone’s beliefs becomes a decision that shapes Buddy’s life. The film touchingly shows how grateful he remains for his family’s humanity and the city that fostered his imagination.

Of course most of this works because newcomer Jude Hill makes for a charming lead. His sparkling eyes, engaging smile and his adolescent pining for Catherine is itself worth the price of admission. Caitríona Balfe and Jamie Dornan turn in great performances, once again proving their status of under-looked stars. Ciarán Hinds is always an absolute stand out, while Judi Dench, even with her comparatively reduced screen time makes a big impact especially with a late speech in the final half of the film.

In other roles, Lara McDonnell, Lewis McAskie, Olive Tennant and Colin Morgan are also very good. On the whole, ‘Belfast’ is a gorgeous coming-of-age story that is uplifting, well-paced, and competently assembled.

Directed –

Starring – Caitriona Balfe, Jamie Dornan, Ciarán Hinds

Rating – PG13

Run Time – 98 minutes

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