CAST: Jude Hill, Caitríona Balfe, Jamie Dornan, Judi Dench, Ciarán Hinds, Colin Morgan, Lara McDonnell, Gerard Horan, Conor MacNeill, Turlough Convery, Gerard McCarthy, Lewis McAskie, Olive Tennant, Victor Alli, Josie Walker, Vanessa Ifediora
RUNNING TIME: 98 mins
BASICALLY…: In 1960s Belfast, a young boy (Hill) and his family react to the growing unrest in the area…
NOW FOR THE REVIEW…
A few months on from our last review (done back in October for its screening at the BFI London Film Festival) and Kenneth Branagh’s endearing black-and-white feature Belfast is still an Oscar season favourite, so far picking up several nods from critics and awards groups across the board. However, its prime position as the absolute frontrunner is still a bit up in the air, with other films like Licorice Pizza, West Side Story and even Spider-Man: No Way Home throwing their hat into the rings, slightly disrupting the semi-autobiographical charmer’s momentum as the one to beat this season.
Whether or not it actually does go on to sweep the Oscars, BAFTAs etc by this point is not as important as the fact that it is a very good movie that’s easy for just about anyone to like, and though perhaps gentler than some of the harder-hitting dramas of this current award season, Belfast is still on track to become a provincial audience favourite with charm, emotion, humour and a good dollop of sweetness to spare.
Beginning in the summer of 1969, within the suburbs of the Northern Ireland city, we quickly meet young Buddy (Jude Hill) who, like most kids his age, is eager to spend his days playing with friends and getting into all sorts of mischief – until a literal war movie suddenly erupts before his very eyes, as an angry mob of Protestants barge through the Catholic-occupied streets with bricks and car bombs, turning this happy and care-free community into a fierce act of hateful intimidation this side of Kristallnacht. These are, of course, the beginning stages of The Troubles, which Buddy and his family – including his mother (Caitríona Balfe), overseas-working father (Jamie Dornan), older brother Will (Lewis McAskie) and caring grandparents (Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds) – must now try to live during, with numerous options being weighed such as leaving the only city they’ve known behind as the violence and intimidation becomes more and more extreme.
Branagh wisely avoids the politicisation of The Troubles, save for news footage showing the barricades and checkpoints covering the streets as well as a brief interview with then-Prime Minister Harold Wilson about the escalating situation, and instead leaves it as a simple, but no less important, backdrop for a chapter in the life of this young boy and his loving family. The conflict is addressed whenever it needs to be, and sometimes Branagh even finds ways to satirise the whole thing, from fire-and-brimstone preachers that ironically ignore the whole “love thy neighbour” side of their faith in their sermons, to innocent childhood gangs being formed in response to the us-versus-them mentality which they’re too young to fully understand. It might not be what most people expect from a prestigious drama set during this very difficult time in 20th century history, but Branagh’s script has enough warmth in its heart to overcome its lighter touch and avoid trivialising this rather dark period through its child-like tone.
Case in point, you find yourself really warming to this main family and their genuine, caring attitude that provides a spark of light in the dark. Beyond the perspective of young Buddy, who’s more interested in wooing the heart of a pretty Catholic girl in his class than the conflict unfolding around him, you spend a good amount of time with his parents, his grandparents, and even some of his friends to a point where you understand their own motivations and why some may be reluctant to do much about the increasingly tight knot they’ve gotten themselves into. Caitríona Balfe has a teary monologue about why she is reluctant to leave her native Belfast behind for the sake of her family (be prepared to see clips of this scene whenever the actress is lined up for awards shows), and both Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds have some quietly tender moments that highlight why their own migration from the conflict-hit streets is not exactly on the cards. All the while, Jamie Dornan is doing whatever he can to keep his family financially afloat and safe from local gangsters who want to stir up further trouble, all while being as good a father as he can to his boys despite being away working for most of the time. This fine ensemble of actors have great moments between them all where they really allow the viewer to get inside their minds and understand their way of thinking, even when you don’t necessarily agree with what they decide to do, all under Branagh’s mindful direction which has them play scenes out like vivid memories from the filmmaker’s own past, including trips to the cinema where the likes of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang provide meaningful escapism for the embattled family.
There’s not a doubt on anyone’s mind that Belfast is going to be a sure-fire hit with audiences that should, as with Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in the actual movie, give them light-hearted entertainment to occupy themselves during these difficult times. As for its awards potential, it’s still got a strong chance and could well be on track to go all the way, but even though it would be a deserved winner it would be classed as a somewhat “safe” win over more complex titles like The Power of the Dog or Dune. Nevertheless, it’s bound to win over hearts and minds as the Oscars approach faster by the day, which could be all it needs to finally pivot it over the finish line, but whether it walks away with the top gong or not on Oscar night, Kenneth Branagh can rest easy knowing that this highly personal film is one of the best films he’s made in a number of years – and, at the very least, leagues ahead of his last feature Artemis Fowl.
By all means check this one out if you want a bit of joy in your lives during these uncertain times, and who knows: you might just be going into the next Best Picture winner as an added bonus.
SO, TO SUM UP…
Belfast is an endearing drama that avoids politicisation of the difficult Troubles period and instead focuses on a purely warm heart that’s boosted by a fantastic ensemble cast and tender semi-autobiographical filmmaking by writer-director Kenneth Branagh, in one of his strongest films in years.