Belfast is a coming-of-age period piece steeped in nostalgia, for a place and a time as it came to an end. Seen through the eyes of a child, it is the story of a family living in a close-knit community in Belfast, Northern Ireland, just as The Troubles were beginning in the late 1960s. It balances the innocence of a child’s experience with the dangers that lurk in the adult world right around the corner. That gives it a bittersweet quality that works in its favor. It is no surprise to learn that Belfast did well on the festival circuit this year (it won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival); it is both an appealing crowd-pleaser and a timely look at how hatred of a group due to their beliefs (in this case, religious) can tear a country apart. It is an enjoyable movie, even if its direction and performances are a lot stronger than its story.
Young Buddy lives in a nice community in Belfast with his mother and father (who regularly leaves for weeks at a time to go to work in England), his teenage brother and his grandparents. In the opening scene, the playing of the neighborhood kids is interrupted by a violent mob of Protestants seeking to drive out the Catholic families that live there. This juxtaposition between childhood concerns and the threats of the outside world not only describes the plot, it also illustrates the biggest issue this screenplay has.
The black-and-white drama Belfast (93 minutes, without the end credits) was written/produced/directed by Kenneth Branagh, based on his own experiences as a young boy in Belfast in the late 1960s. I have no idea how specifically the characters are modeled after himself and his family, but there is certainly a lot of love in the way these people are seen. Buddy is endearing. His naïve adventures and relationship with his family are entertaining.
What becomes a bit of a problem is Branagh’s decision to view The Troubles from the perspective of a kid. Obviously, this was how Branagh himself saw it back then, yet it forces his story to take a very simplistic approach to what was going on at that time. It basically boils it down to “it is now dangerous here, so maybe they should move.” There isn’t as much nuance as there definitely was in real life. It almost felt like the movie was avoiding it.
However, Branagh’s love for the material shines so clearly throughout, that I was mainly able to concentrate on the stuff I liked. The thing I was most impressed with was his framing. He fairly effortlessly gets his entire central cast on-screen together relatively often, even when they are in separate rooms. Having two people in the foreground, two people in the background and two people in midground, while keeping all of them in focus, emphasizes the individual significance of each of them.
Additionally, he and his editor, Úna Ní Dhonghaíle, seem to know exactly how long to hold a shot to get the best reaction from the audience. Though the subject matter is serious, Belfast does have some humor that comes from Buddy’s attempts to figure out the world around him and get the attention of the classmate he has a crush on. There are a few shots that rely on us watching Buddy’s face, then cutting to what he is looking at for the punchline, that have pretty much perfect timing.
He also, as usual, is quite skilled when it comes to managing his excellent cast. In his debut, eleven-year-old Jude Hill is adorable, though not in a cloying way, as Buddy. He is just a kid trying to understand what’s going on. Caitríona Balfe and Jamie Dornan, as his parents, are both very good. The legendary Judi Dench does strong work as always as his grandmother. Then there is the great Ciarán Hinds stealing every scene he is in as his kind and playful grandfather. His talks with Hill are charming and he has wonderful chemistry with Dench. I expect Belfast to get a lot of nominations during awards season; it would be a shame if Hinds gets lost in the shuffle.
Despite my annoyance at the cutesy way he sometimes deals with what’s on-screen, it was hard to resist being charmed by Branagh’s love letter to his childhood. For every moment it was glossing over how complicated this period must have been for his family, there are several of Buddy talking to his Pop about life or figuring out how to get closer to the girl he likes or losing himself in the transportive ability of the movies, the color of the fantasy world of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang reflected on the black-and-white faces of his family. Branagh’s affection for what he has made is so genuine that it overcame my general irritation with crowd-pleasers.
3½ out of 5
Jude Hill as Buddy
Caitríona Balfe as Ma
Jamie Dornan as Pa
Ciarán Hinds as Pop
Judi Dench as Granny
Lewis McAskie as Will
Written and Directed by Kenneth Branagh