Irish writer/director Kenneth Branagh brings the memories of his childhood to the big screen with Belfast, a slight but sweet slice-of-life story with winsome performances that make up for the often too-tidy screenplay. Branagh has directed 18 movies to date, from multiple Shakespeare adaptations to more corporate fare like Cinderella and Artemis Fowl, but this certainly feels like his most deeply-felt film thus far. It captures the joys and fears of an era that Americans may not know as nearly as well as their European counterparts but will likely leave the theater eager to learn more about this turbulent time in history. The movie isn’t unlike a cold pint of Guinness after a hard day at work, in that it’s a nice break from reality that’s familiar and goes down easy.
The film is told from the perspective of Buddy (Jude Hill), a young boy living in Belfast with his mother (Caitríona Balfe) and father (Jamie Dornan) when The Troubles begin. Marked by years of street-level violence between Protestants and Catholics throughout Ireland, it was a time of conflict and unrest that understandably caused many to flee the country for greener pastures. But Buddy’s family, including his grandmother (Judi Dench) and grandfather (Ciarán Hinds), has unresolved debts that preclude their ability to just up and leave the only street that they’ve known. We see the struggles of Buddy’s family and friends through his eyes as he makes the most of his childhood, doing his best in school and trying to keep out of trouble on the streets.
Bookended by present-day shots taken around the titular town, Belfast is primarily presented in handsome black-and-white courtesy of cinematographer and frequent Branagh collaborator Haris Zambarloukos. It’s a bit ironic, then, that Branagh seems to recall these events with rose-colored glasses. The opening scene escalates from neighbors doffing caps and hollering pleasantries to an angry mob storming down the street in the span of one continuous 360 degree shot. It’s like an opening number from a musical desperate to introduce the setting and raise the stakes by the time the last note is sung but in a drama like this, such a scene strains credulity. Worse yet is a crucial moment that occurs during what should be the film’s climax, which suffers from downright poor editing that undercuts the dramatic tension of the sequence.
Thankfully, Belfast finds most of its power simply in the hushed discussions overheard between family members who care deeply for one another. Most of the performers are shot in close-up, especially when Buddy is talking with them, suggesting the full panoramic view that adults take up in a child’s field of vision. Sometimes it’s imposing and sometimes it’s comforting, depending on the context of the conversation. Zambarloukos also shoots from lower angles, suggesting the perspective of a boy always looking up to his elders for guidance. A humorous early sequence, and something of a running joke throughout, involves a sweaty preacher firing off about two metaphorical paths of Heaven and Hell, while Buddy innocently wonders which of his actions correspond with which road.
This is Jude Hill’s first credited role and he does a fine job balancing Buddy’s hopes and hang-ups while fostering a cherubic nature that carries through to the easy nature of the film. Dornan, who was a riot earlier this year in Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar, brings an easy charm here and continues to find colorful roles following his drab stint as Christian Grey in the Fifty Shades series. Balfe is radiant as the maternal figure who not only looks after Buddy and his brother but is something of a guardian angel for all of the children on their street, while Dench and Hinds add notes of wit and wisdom as grandparents. Belfast is a bit too nostalgic and sentimental for its own good but wins the day with likable acting and heartfelt direction.
Score – 3/5
Also coming to theaters on Thanksgiving:
Encanto, a Disney animated musical starring Stephanie Beatriz and John Leguizamo, tells the story of a young Colombian girl who is the only member of her family without magical powers and may be the only one who can save the magic when it comes under threat.
House of Gucci, a crime biopic starring Lady Gaga and Adam Driver, depicts the events and aftermath of the 1995 murder of Maurizio Gucci, Italian businessman and head of the fashion house Gucci.
Resident Evil: Welcome to Raccoon City, a survival horror starring Kaya Scodelario and Hannah John-Kamen, follows a group of survivors as they make their way through a dying town with great evil brewing below the surface.
Reprinted by permission of Whatzup