“Belfast” is Kenneth Branagh’s heartfelt tribute to the communal power of cinema. It features stellar performances and serves as a tender portrait of a violent period in Irish history.
Buddy is an exuberant boy who loves two things, movies and his overachieving school crush, Catherine. While Buddy struggles to win Catherine’s attention, his family struggles to ride out the tumultuous 1960’s in Northern Ireland.
What struck me most about Belfast was the nostalgic view of a tight-knit neighborhood, and how foreign that concept feels in 2021. These streets are filled with familiar faces, children playing outside, and neighbors who constantly look out for one another. The gorgeous monochrome cinematography captures the essence of the time period and truly feels like old photographs come to life. The main subject of these photographs is a small working class family, including the aforementioned Buddy. Buddy acts as our main point of view and his adolescent struggles felt surprisingly important to me, even against the heavy backdrop of sectarian violence and religious guilt that frame the story. Despite the heartbreaking events and circumstances in the film, more than anything, I just wanted Buddy to retain his innocence and get the girl. Making me care in that way is a testament to the filmmaking from Branagh and how personal the story was to him.
The film is led by a very impressive and likeable performance from Jude Hill. He was so easy to empathize with and everything felt so much bigger through his eyes, including his charismatic “Pa”, played by Jamie Dornan. The acting all around in this film was superb. If I had to highlight two standouts, they would be Dame Judi Dench and Ciaran Hinds, who portrayed the ever-supportive and wise-cracking grandparents. They both had such tremendous chemistry together and really disappeared into these roles. I found their storyline the most emotionally resonant and relatable. The portrayal of this family felt very authentic and you could feel the personal connection from Branagh throughout the film.
Speaking of film, it is celebrated here in such an amazing way. The cinema in Belfast is portrayed as a sacred communal space, providing an emotional refuge for this family grappling with very serious issues. Unlike the rest of the story, shots involving film, tv and the theatre are all bathed in beautiful color. This choice juxtaposes the fantastical escapism that cinema provides, with the harsh realities or daily life. As someone who adores film and the visual arts, this portrayal really connected with me and reminded me of the wide-eyed wonder of some of my own theatre experiences as a child.
As personal as the story for Belfast was, some of the execution felt very derivative of other works. For instance, It’s difficult to separate this film from Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma”, another monochromatic, nostalgic portrait of a hometown going through political strife. That being said Belfast’s inspirations, while noticeable, feel warranted here. In an age where the value of the theatre experience is constantly being questioned, it is extremely refreshing to see the film medium make the case for itself in such a compelling manner.