“Belfast” Review – The Hollywood Reporter
With Belfast, Kenneth Branagh is gratifyingly moving from his adaptations of Agatha Christie to a much more personal film about his childhood in Northern Ireland. Set in 1969 at the height of the conflicts between Protestants and Catholics, the feature film mainly avoids politics and instead focuses on family drama. I guess Branagh was inspired by John Boorman’s masterful 1987 film about his childhood in WWII, Hope and glory. It’s a high bar to match, and Branagh doesn’t quite hit it, but he does bring in moments of humor and pathos that leave a lasting impact.
Filmed in black and white with a few bursts of color (more on this in a moment), the film opens with a calm domestic scene that suddenly explodes with violence. Our protagonist, 9-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill) is trying to figure out what is disrupting his life. As far as he knows, his Protestant family has always lived side by side with Catholic neighbors, but this August morning forces him to see the world differently. The main family unit consists of Buddy, his older brother (Lewis McAskie), his mother (Caitriona Balfe) and his father (Jamie Dornan), who frequently travels to England for construction work. His grandmother and grandfather, superbly performed by Judi Dench and Ciaran Hinds, also live nearby.
The bottom line
A poignant journey through a childhood full of traumas.
Most of the story is told through Buddy’s eyes, and young Hill is a wonderful camera subject. Sadly, he also speaks in a rich Irish brogue which is not always easy for American ears to understand. Some of the other actors are also difficult to understand. It is a film that would certainly benefit from being subtitled. Fortunately, however, his emotional core is still clear-headed: Dornan’s character wants to move his family out of Northern Ireland for their safety, but their loving bonds in the community make that decision extremely difficult.
A bigger problem with the film is that it just doesn’t provide enough information about the unrest in Northern Ireland. Some viewers can remember the story, but others are probably in need of a refresher course. Branagh uses a few snippets from TV news to try to fill the background, but they are insufficient. Within the Protestant community, there seem to be different factions – some who advocate violence and disruption and others, like the main characters, who hope to maintain a more placid existence.
Despite these flaws, the main characters are so well drawn and beautifully played that we cannot help but get caught up in their daily struggles as well as the larger decision they face as to whether to give up their home. for the uncertain prospect of new horizons. Moving will mean leaving the grandparents behind, and we feel their connection to the elderly couple so intensely that the pathos escalates. The scenes between Dench and Hinds are some of the most beautiful depictions of a long-term marriage depicted on screen. In one scene, Hinds persuades his wife to dance with him, and the timing is enchanting. We also feel in a palpable way the attachment of young Buddy to his grandparents, who offer him life lessons that he never quite receives from his parents.
The period is eloquently evoked by Branagh, cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos and production designer Jim Clay. The flashes of color in this black-and-white universe come when the family visits the local cinema, first to see Raquel Welch wrestling with behemoths in A million years BC, and later be delighted by the flying car in Chitty chitty bang bang. Even the character of Dench is pulled from her seat as she watches Dick Van Dyke and his family take flight. The period score, mainly provided by Irish singer-songwriter Van Morrison, also helps to take us back in time. I could have done without the repeated use of Dimitri Tiomkin’s theme of Midi high (on television) to draw a dubious parallel to the confrontation in the streets of Belfast.
Branagh’s most personal film is flawed, but the emotion it evokes in the final section, as the family plays a heart-wrenching universal drama of emigration, is searing. Times when Buddy has to say goodbye to his childhood girlfriend and grandmother whom he may never see again tear his heart apart and linger in memory.