Belfast is not a place, it’s a people. In 1969 Belfast, Ireland, the times, they are a-changin. What has existed as a mostly idyllic and communal environment has changed in one fell swoop. “The Troubles” have begun, a conflict between Protestants and Catholics with disagreements of labor and nationality serving to widen the chasm outside of the obvious for the two groups, and the Protestants have launched the first explosive salvo in a broad daylight neighborhood attack.
In this neighborhood lives Buddy (Jude Hill), an inquisitive, fun-loving nine-year-old with older brother, Will (Lewis McAskie), “Ma” (Caitriona Balfe), the occasional presence of construction worker “Pa” (Jamie Dornan), and grandparents Granny (Judi Dench) and Pop (Ciarán Hinds). Belfast is all Buddy knows, and Belfast is all he wants to know, which makes it all the more painful when the working class family has to truly decide on whether it is time to uproot and build life anew in a safer though foreign place.
For a movie taking place during a period so serious, it can and has been quite the surprise that Belfast is actually…kind of light? Not a total black mark, it is mostly a compliment, particularly during this time of year when many featured fare can trend towards dry and dour. Belfast certainly has its moments designed to evoke sadness, but it is as interested in showcasing those cute, sweet moments of bliss and joy even in prolonged periods of stress.
Belfast native Kenneth Branagh directs, his film more or less an exact account of his experience as a youngster. Naturally, that gives the film a hyper-intimate look and style. With help from editor Úna Ní Dhonghaíle and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos, Belfast resembles less of a film and more of a detailed portrait of snapshots weaved together in cohesion and seen from the vantage point of a kid not quite even to preteen age. And the camera framing seems to reflect this, as sometimes, subjects are shot from the ground up to reflect deference/wisdom, and other times, conversations are shot and heard statically, picking up just enough for a youngster to be knowledgeable of matters but not fully internalize them. The black and white is a nice touch; however, the argument can be made that the production/set design does more to aid the nostalgic vibe than the color palette.
Back to the “light” piece. Might be a stretch to say Belfast is devoid of all narrative weight, but it becomes fairly obvious early on that the story part of this movie, written by Branagh, is more interested in creating emotionally mawkish beats than providing deeper insight and commentary on The Troubles and meatier characters, outside of its lead. Branagh’s script is very easy to ascertain where it plans on ending things, making any introduced tension to the family both internally and externally feel non-threatening. Again, it’s not quite a movie that has aims on moonlighting as a visual representation of what you read in 11th grade World History class (nor should it have to be!). That said, I believe I learned more reading on Wikipedia about the subject matter than anything shown in this movie…which is sort of awkward?
Back to the positives. Belfast is a showcase for the newbie Hill, portraying Branagh as a nine-year-old with much zest and equal parts naivete and smarts. He’ll melt even the iciest of hearts. He’s flanked by a cast carrying many past accolades (some of the Golden Raspberry variety), beginning with Hinds and Dench, who bring humor as an elderly couple who has made it through anything and everything. Take away Dornan’s stints as Christian Grey and he’s proven to be a dependable supporting cast mate in features. Outside of Hill, the elegant but steely Balfe deserves to be in the conversation for Best Supporting Actress, turning in a performance that sees her as the glue of her family.
It is fine to want more out of Belfast; what exists here slants heavily towards the emotional and less towards story substance. Perhaps it is good to end this with a line (not all the way applicable, but somewhat) from a movie Branagh recently appeared in not too long ago to sum up thoughts: “Don’t try to understand it, feel it.”
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