REVIEW – ‘Belfast’ is Kenneth Branagh’s gorgeous and heartwarming ode to his youth

When a film becomes the early frontrunner for Best Picture, the mudslinging inevitably begins. Kenneth Branagh‘s Belfast saw glowing reactions after screening at the Telluride Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival. At the latter, it won the People’s Choice Award – a trophy three of the last five Best Picture winners all scored. But if you peruse the tweets of the vocal members of Film Twitter, its possible victory in late March would be a travesty not seen since the much-maligned Green Book won in 2018.

I completely agree Belfast is not the “best” film of 2021. It’s not groundbreaking or revolutionary. It’s not a technical marvel or an innovative wonder. It’s simple, sweet, and sentimental, which are three qualities that have recently become dirty words in the Oscar race. Regardless of its potential awards season success, it’s hard not to fall under the spell Branagh has crafted with this gorgeous and heartwarming ode to his youth.

A charming and deeply personal love letter to the town and community that raised him, Belfast radiates warmth and tenderness that’s rather impossible to resist. Sure, it’s maudlin and emotionally manipulative, but, gosh, if I wasn’t entirely willing to allow Branagh to play with every single one of my emotions. There are certainly “better” films this season, but it’s hard to find one that will touch your heart as much as Belfast.

Set in 1969 in the titular town where Branagh’s spent his childhood, Belfast tells the tale of one close-knit extended Protestant family and their experiences as the Troubles, the violent class war between Ireland’s Protestants and Catholics, land on the family’s doorstep. Young Buddy (the endlessly adorable Jude Hill) lives in a cosy home with his beloved Ma (Caitriona Balfe), Pa (Jamie Dornan), and older brother, Will (Lewis McAskie). Just down the road are his doting Granny (Judi Dench) and Pop (Ciarán Hinds). It’s a quaint community where everyone looks out for each other.

With Pa spending most of his time working as a labourer in London, the family are mostly left to fend for themselves. That’s never been a problem until the day Buddy’s childhood is shattered by the arrival of a violent mob of anti-nationalist Protestants who tear through the community and set fire to the homes of Catholic residents. As the violence escalates, Pa becomes the target of local militant Protestant tyrant Billy (Colin Morgan), who believes the nonconfrontational father should join their ranks.

While Buddy tries to focus on his favourite pastimes like playing football and watching movies, it’s impossible for the young lad to ignore the chaos brewing around his previously peaceful town. Much to Buddy’s chagrin, Pa begins to question if the family should pack up and start a new life anywhere but Ireland. But when all you’ve known is one town and one lifestyle, leaving is easier said than done.

Constructed through a series of vignettes, Belfast plays like the memories of a child that are slightly fractured in a construction sense. There’s been some heavy criticism of Una Ni Dhonghaile‘s editing feeling disjointed and often somewhat haphazard. It’s true there is a discernible lack of flow to these scenes, but, in my opinion, it feels intentional to convey how one remembers their childhood in such a splintered fashion. We don’t reflect on memories of our youth like one grand movie, and I’m preferring to believe that disconnect is what Branagh is aiming for.

However, we are sitting down to watch a piece of cinema, so the criticism of the editing is valid and the film’s biggest flaw. At just 97 minutes long, the pacing of Belfast almost works against the emotion of Branagh’s screenplay. Several scenes feel too short. Others much too long. It’s always pleasing to view an awards contender that isn’t pushing three hours but not at the expense of cutting corners to arrive at the intended destination. By the time the film hits the third act, Branagh has crafted so many narrative threads that he has no choice but to wrap up in a rather hasty fashion.

For all the chaos and anarchy of the Troubles that occasionally breaks the film’s warmth, Branagh is more interested in focusing on the familial aspects of this touching narrative. He puts his audience in the perspective of Buddy and the minor (and major) moments of Branagh’s childhood that ultimately made him who he would become. From his first schoolyard crush who Buddy longs to sit next to in class to attending the movies with Granny and being wowed by the visual effects of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, it’s a charming series of seemingly innocuous events that play like Branagh flicking through his family photo album.

It should come as no surprise to learn going to the cinema was one of my favourite activities as a young lad. But it was always that extra bit special when my beloved grandmother would chaperone me and my sister. Nan passed on her love of “the pictures” to her grandson and it’s a gift I’ve always cherished. As such, Buddy’s gorgeous connection with Granny hit me like a tonne of bricks. She even uses the idiom “fillums” just like my Nan did. It swept me right back to my own childhood, which might explain why I connected with Belfast so damn deeply. Maybe it’s wrong to bring personal sentiment into a film review, but, in this case, I can’t help it.

Everything in Belfast hinges on the casting of Buddy. Branagh surely auditioned hundreds of youngsters before making a terrific find with Hill. In a stellar debut performance that’s terrifically natural and genuine, Hill leads this film with infectious charm and sweet naivete. The dialogue Branagh has written for Hill is richly authentic to that of a nine-year-old with an equal measure of precocious curiosity and confused incomprehension. Hill carries the responsibility of telling this story with the confidence of a performer well beyond his years. It’s a beguiling turn that’s easily one of the best child performances of recent times.

Surrounding Hill is a sublime ensemble cast that will surely all be in consideration come Oscar nomination time. In a performance that will be deemed supporting by awards season but is really Hill’s co-lead, Balfe is marvellous as the matriarch desperately trying to hold everything together. She’s a woman of true resilience who wants to shield her young children from the horrors of the world, but knows it’s an impossible task in a place like Belfast. Dornan is equally as impressive as the father sacrificing time with his wife and children to somehow find a better life for them. And he’s given the opportunity to dazzle with his showman skills in a joyous performance of Love Affair’s “Everlasting Love” that brings bountiful light after a particularly dark moment.

But the real scene-stealers are Dench and Hinds, who combine to create a darling old married couple who bicker and make fun of one another but are clearly still madly in love. Buddy’s grandparents are his constant solace. They’re a pair of wise old birds with words of wisdom to impart on their impressionable grandson and their home is a refuge away from the reality of Buddy’s rapidly changing world. Being so close to one’s grandparents is both a blessing and a curse. The love for their grandchildren knows no limits but their time with us is obviously finite. Over the course of the film, Buddy will learn that painful lesson.

In lieu of an original score, Branagh dots the film with eight classic tracks from Belfast native Van Morrison plus an original song “Down to Joy” that plays over the end credits. It’s one of the film’s many Oscar-bait moments. If you love Morrison’s music, it’s likely to be a welcome choice. Personally, it felt somewhat forced as if Branagh lazily scoured through Morrison’s back catalogue to find any song that would fit the mood of each scene. Morrison is naturally deeply connected to the titular town, but surely there were other Irish artists that could have furnished the soundtrack with some semblance of variety.

The decision to shoot in black and white certainly fits the era, but the cynic in me feels it’s just more of an attempt to tickle the fancy of Academy members and make this film seem more artistically important than it really is. That’s not to suggest Haris Zambarlouskos‘ cinematography isn’t crisp and beautiful. It absolutely is. But the narrative’s emotions and the film’s visuals would likely work just as well in colour as they would black and white, so there’s nothing particularly groundbreaking about this artistic decision. It makes Belfast stand out in a crowd and will feel wistful to generations who remember a time before technicolour.

While Belfast is far from a perfect film (and probably the wrong choice for Best Picture this year), it’s hard not to adore Branagh’s personal project. It’s a relatable crowd-pleaser with universal themes that ultimately just seeks to touch your heart. Cinema has always been my method of escapism and a shared passion that crosses multiple generations. It’s difficult not to be swept away by a film that celebrates both the power of family and film. Haters be damned. Belfast is good for the soul. And after the misery of the last two years, we need a film like this more than ever.

Distributor: Universal Pictures
Cast: Jamie Dornan, Caitriona Balfe, Jude Hill, Judi Dench, Ciaran Hinds, Lewis McAskie, Lara McDonnell, Colin Morgan
Directors: Kenneth Branagh
Producers: Laura Berwick, Kenneth Branagh, Becca Kovacik, Tamar Thomas
Screenplay: Kenneth Branagh
Cinematography: Haris Zambarloukos
Production Design: Jim Clay
Costume Design: Charlotte Walter
Music: Van Morrison
Editor: Una Ni Dhonghaile
Running Time: 97 minutes
Release Date: 3rd February 2022 (Australia)