VIFF ’21 Review: ‘Belfast’ is a crowd pleasing but personal film from Kenneth Branagh

The Troubles, as they are so politely referred to, have had an indelible impact on Northern Ireland and the people who live there. Yes, that is the understatement of the decade, but while we think about the 30-year conflict in very broad terms, generally, outside of that country, we often don’t think about the real human impact. Kenneth Branagh is one of those people, and with Belfast, he seeks to tell the story of his families well as part of the story of Northern Ireland at large.

The film is at least in part autobiographical, with the protagonist Buddy (Jude Hill) standing in for Branagh himself (who was also 9 in the year the film takes place), lives in a quiet, close-knit neighbourhood being torn apart by the troubles. His father (played by Jamie Dornan), a builder and joiner (like Branagh’s father), is away in England more than half the time and only seeks to bring his family to safety in England (which Branagh’s father eventually did).

Along the way, Buddy gets into trouble, pines for a girl, and spends time with his grandparents (played by Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds). The film has the brilliant touch of being entirely from Buddy’s point of view. Adult characters are only referred to by their position in his life –like “Ma” and “Pa”–, we get much of the exposition by either having things explained to him in more straightforward terms or by his eavesdropping on partial conversations. Even the camera is almost always from low angles to highlight that we are indeed in Buddy’s world.

Jude Hill, a newcomer, carries the entire movie with aplomb, which is no mean feat in a film that has him surrounded by such talent. One early sequence, in particular, has the camera circling him in one extended take as crowds of people clash and explosions echo around him, and his performance through all that never misses a beat.

The rest of the cast is predictably excellent. Both Dench and Hinds are reliable, but Jamie Dornan and Caitríona Balfe are revelations in their own ways. Dornan turns on the charm in a way that he hasn’t done in the past and makes Buddy’s father a real, relatable character as a man trying to walk the line of what is best for his family. Balfe, for her part, steals every scene she is in. She is the beating heart of the film, and while Buddy’s mother is the slowest to come around to the family, leaving you never doubt for a second that she isn’t thinking of her children’s best interest. Their chemistry as a couple is off the charts also, and you’d never for a moment believe they weren’t entirely in love, and when they dance, it’s just magical.

Belfast walks a fine line between being broadly appealing and also incredibly personal. Even if he had never said it was, you could tell that this film is something special for Branagh, something that has meaning for him beyond what we might take from it. The story of his own family, seemingly told through his childhood memories, is captivating and delightful, and it’s sure to be nominated for every award under the sun this year.

Belfast played as part of the 2021 Vancouver International Film Festival. It is scheduled for release in North America by Focus Features on 12th November, followed by a UK release by Universal Pictures on 25th February 2022.


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