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Review: ‘Belfast’ (dir. Kenneth Branagh)

‘Belfast’ is a memory box of a film is a nostalgic, touching, and heartwarming story told through a rich cinematic lens with noteworthy acting performances all around.

It’s already an Oscars favorite, but does that really mean it’s that good? Well, even if you strip back the notoriety it’s getting in terms of awards, Belfast is still a visual feat full of heart and nostalgia.

Director Kenneth Branagh is really taking a sharp left turn with this project after having previously directed 2011’s Thor, 2014’s Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Disney’s 2015 live-action remake of Cinderella, 2017’s Murder on the Orient Express, and 2020’s Artemis Fowl. The scale here with Belfast is so much more honed in and focused on its most central characters and their immediate surroundings that you get the chance to feel really emotionally invested with the outcome. Let this be proof that small-scale isn’t always a bad thing when it comes to creativity.

Much of the story deals with our main character Buddy, played by the incomparable Jude Hill, who I’m certain will be getting many more acting gigs very soon. Buddy is a nine-year-old boy growing up in the Belfast, Ireland’s capital, in the late 1960s. During this time period, there was somewhat of a rivalry between the Protestant and Catholic communities which led to the infamous battle of The Troubles. So Buddy’s Protestant family living alongside their Catholic counterparts was frowned upon by certain Protestants.

Framing this kind of civil and religious dispute through a young child’s perspective made for a really honest and often humorous look at how kids perceive the things that so many people place high importance in society. I loved the shots that were strategically done to provide a view from Buddy’s literal vantage point, as much of the film deals with how he views the world and those around him.

Let’s get into the award talk (because there’s already plenty of it). There are arguments to be made for why each of these individual actors deserve a nomination in their respective categories. No doubt, they’ll all be highly competitive in the areas they are being campaigned. Caitriona Balfe in Best Supporting Actress, Jamie Dornan in Best Supporting Actor, Jude Hill in Best Actor, Judi Dench in Best Supporting Actress, and Ciaran Hinds in Best Supporting Actor.

Balfe’s performance seems to make her a more than worthy contender, and she delivers some memorable scenes and impressive monologues. Admittedly, she’s not an actor I was hyper aware of before this, but she’s quickly taken over everybody’s radar. Dornan may just be able to do anything (proof: go watch Barb and Star Go To Vista Del Mar, and you’ll thank me). His characters has a simultaneously warm yet distant feeling that is captured really well on screen. Hill faces an uphill battle being a young wipper-snapper competing in the big leagues, but his performance is so impressive he just may we’ll make it in here. He’s a cute kid and all, but it’s so much more than that. The way he can convey emotions, carry a scene, elevate the performance of those around him, and really connect his character to the bigger picture make him an actor to watch out for.

Dench is amazing. I mean, she’s always amazing, but she’s playing an old granny here who has grey-haired wisdom and fast-as-a-whip one-liners. She’s sure to please every audience. Hinds is a character that you really form a bond with, especially in regards to his relationship with his son and grandson. Of the bunch, he probably faces the hardest obstacles at actually achieving nomination, but that doesn’t mean his performance isn’t incredible.

Another aspect of the film that almost feels like a character in itself is the inclusion of Van Morrison’s music on the soundtrack. In a perfectly fitting move, Branagh chose Van Morrison, a northern Irish musician, to spotlight the punchiest moments of this flick about Northern Ireland in the ‘60s. We get a variety of his hits pulled from his vast catalog, but he also contributes a brand new original song titled “Down To Joy” that plays at the very beginning. I’m sure they’re going to be pushing for this to get into the Best Original Song category because it looks like Belfast is really going to be an extreme competitor at the Oscars. 

If this is really trying to fit into that optimistic family drama space that it wants, it’s probably best not to have required summer reading before seeing the movie. It’s probably best that we not feel the need to hand out an information a pamphlet on the way into the theater. No, really, in all seriousness, it does do an alright job at laying the groundwork of the situation, and more explanation could’ve been a little bit too exposition-heavy.

On the other hand, I liked how the story pertained specifically to the little boy’s character. He wouldn’t have been focused on the news or reading newspapers. He would’ve heard about current events in passing; while his mother watched the news on TV, while his parents were talking, things his friends told him. It puts you in his shoes, as well, to feel the environment in which these children were placed.

Many are billing this as the crowd-pleaser of the year, but I will be fast to warn you that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the super happy, heartwarming story you might be imagining. Not to say that makes it less of a “crowd-pleaser,” but the trailers and marketing certainly make this look like an artsy family drama when that’s only a narrow view of it.

Featuring some of the most beautiful black-and-white cinematography, the only parts of the film that are shown in color are the different forms of entertainment that the little boy enjoyed: films, television, plays. I thought this was truly an exquisite way to show the window outside of reality that the arts can be for children. Life itself is, however, shot in black-and-white, which is representative of so many ideas that are up to your perception.

There are already some extremely high expectations for director Kenneth Branagh this upcoming awards season, and it looks like he’s a lock for a Best Director nomination. Some are even saying he’s the clear front runner to win, but the category is stacked this year with competition like Jane Campion, Denis Villeneuve, Asghar Fargadi, Pedro Almodovar, Reinaldo Marcus Green, and others, so I don’t think a winner is hardly set in stone just yet.

Is a comparison to Roma (a film which I will always love, admire, and respect) warranted? Well, yes and no. I don’t like to say two films are similar just “because they’re both black-and-white,” so please don’t let that be your argument here. They share a few parallels in that they center on a struggle that feels relatively contained. The audience wants our protagonists to succeed by the end, and there’s a really strong emotional bond created in both scenarios. 

It can feel dry at times with the storytelling meandering into more of a slice-of-life than a fast-moving drama. However, that’s part of the charm. You’re getting to know this neighborhood inside and out, so part of that is also getting the seemingly mundane everyday.

This memory box of a film is a nostalgic, touching, and heartwarming story told through a rich cinematic lens with noteworthy acting performances all around.

Belfast opens in theaters this Friday, November 12. 

2 replies on “Review: ‘Belfast’ (dir. Kenneth Branagh)”

Belfast is a story seen through the eyes of an innocent nine year old Northern Irish boy, who’s innocent childhood is dramatically changed in an instant with the beginnings of the ‘TROUBLES’ changing where he lives.and all he has ever known. Suddnly there is division and hatred between the neighbours, The dynamics of his young life is bewildering when all he has known is the sanctity of his loving family and his friends in the close community. The conflict between neighbours is suddenly so dramatic and serious it is hard for him to comprehend, it is all out war! The movie is mostly shot, very effectively, in black and white, It will touch your heart to your very soul. Belfast, the Troubles, is an emotional subject, not normally percieved or portrayed through the eyes of the young innocent child on his doorstep. The humour, the love, the devotion and resilience of his family, the sadness and conflict are oh so very real! Backed with a compltely stunning, amazing cast, with music from Van the man and even Jamie Dornan siging will carry you through to the end and touch your heart forever!.This movie is definitely a one off, a rare and beautiful film so well written and filmed, it deserves every accolade thrown at it..

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