We’re heading to awards season yet again, which means projects like Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast are about to fill the theaters in a bid for votes towards year-end honors. However, not all Oscar contenders are created equal, as some are clearly designed for the task, while others organically fit the bill. Branagh’s film fits the bill of the latter rather nicely, as he melds personal memories with historical events to create a top notch family drama that can both heal and wound the audience’s hearts with sincere humanity.
Loosely based on Kenneth Branagh's own childhood, Belfast centers around a boy named Buddy (newcomer Jude Hill) who is growing up in Ireland during the notoriously dangerous time known as The Troubles. While we see Buddy’s neighborhood start to become torn apart by those aggressions, the writer/director doesn’t focus solely on historical events. Rather, we’re treated to the reactions of Buddy's parents, Ma (Caitríona Balfe) and Pa (Jamie Dornan) and grandparents Granny (Dame Judi Dench) and Pop (Ciarán Hinds), which shape Buddy’s perspective of the period.
A semi-autobiographical drama, Kenneth Branagh doesn’t get too personal with Belfast.
The reactions of Belfast’s central family provide the overarching narrative to which Kenneth Branagh limits the film’s scope. In a sense, the closest spiritual cousin that this movie has is writer-director Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma, as both projects are a mix of semi-autobiographical memories and historic turmoil. The big difference being is that Belfast, while having its share of frightening and bittersweet moments, comes off as a much lighter affair than its thematic predecessor. That's not to belittle Roma in any way, but while Cuaron's film was more of a catharsis, Belfast is more of a loving ode to history and family.
It may be because we’re following Buddy as a child protagonist throughout Belfast, but the tone of the film never gets too dour, nor does it go too personal. It certainly helps if you know at least a brief overview of The Troubles before going in, because there’s not a lot of explanation provided. Rather, the audience is given enough details to understand the situation, as historical and cultural touchstones are woven together with character moments and pop culture easter eggs. And smack dab in the center of it all is a performance so impressive, it justifies Buddy as being the heart and soul of Belfast.
Jude Hill’s introductory film role is a vital component to why Belfast’s story and ensemble work so beautifully.
As Belfast’s Buddy, Jude Hill makes quite an introduction as an actor, and it’s a role that absolutely demands a young performer that can do just that. Present in nearly every shot and every moment of the film, Hill’s protagonist is our eyes on the world of Kenneth Branagh’s childhood. No time is wasted establishing this fact either, as roughly five minutes into the film, the young star is made to react to hell breaking loose on his street, with Belfast erupting into a total riot as its opening gambit.
Though he orbits around charming and heartfelt cast mates like Jamie Dornan, Caitríona Balfe, Dame Judi Dench, and Ciarán Hinds, the focus on Jude Hill is intense and deservedly so. Love, loss, and history are all presented in Belfast, and it’s a hard enough equation to land when you’ve got an adult character as your focus. With an emotional intelligence that’s quite keen for an actor of his age, Hill squares up with his seasoned adult co-stars, and never falls into cliché.
It must also be said that the adult cast of Belfast is a spectacular ensemble in and of itself. The core group of actors that play Buddy’s family present a warm and loving household that’s trying its best to weather a storm that they don’t know will take decades to end. Love is key to survival of the family, but is also very important for the interpersonal relationships, as two romances play out during Buddy’s own coming-of-age antics. The equally charming pairs of Caitríona Balfe and Jamie Dornan and Dame Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds establish a beautiful humanity that helps Belfast tackle tough historical issues without having to stoop to manufactured dramatics.
Belfast establishes itself as an awards contender through a balance between technical precision and character driven stakes.
Belfast could have very easily been either a standard historical biopic or merely a riff on the formula of autobiographical narrative. Those sorts of movies are absolutely gorgeous to look at, but don’t always translate into identifiable stories audiences want to see told. Watching Belfast feels more like screening home movies and rifling through photographs, as the experiences on display are told with amazing detail in sound and image, transporting the audience into those moments.
Kenneth Branagh balances both his technical prowess and his personal experiences to establish a story in Belfast that works with history and memory. Gorgeously captured in crisp black and white by cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos, the audience is treated to an artistic triumph, as well as an emotional success.
Dedicating his film to those who left, those who stayed behind, and those we lost along the way, Branagh delivers a call for peace by showing us all what it’s like to be a kid again. Better still, he does so in a film that's not locked to any politically solvent issues of the time it was made, nor of the time it's depicting. Rather, Kenneth Branagh presents a story that can be fondly remembered for generations to come, with the smiles and frowns that any era of human history has to offer.
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