How does a young boy process the unthinkable: car bombs and shattered glass, religious intolerance ripping a once-peaceful community apart?
Kenneth Branagh seeks an answer, or at least an approximation of one, with Belfast. Frequently described as his most personal film yet, the prolific filmmaker returned to his childhood to inform his story of a Northern Irish family living during the onset of The Troubles in 1969. The nationalist, religious conflict upends Buddy’s (Jude Hill) life from the beginning, interrupting a joyous playfight in the neighborhood with actual, undiscerning violence. Buddy’s family – Ma (Catriona Balfe), Pa (Jamie Dornan), Pop (Ciarán Hinds), Granny (Judi Dench), and Billy (Colin Morgan) – all have different approaches to processing the unrest. Still, the consensus is to keep the family together and harm-free as much as possible, even though ominous threats from neighbors and creeping financial and health issues make that a tricky proposition.
Despite the volatility surrounding Buddy, Belfast doesn’t explicitly focus on the trauma. Save for bursts of violence serving as the film’s bookends, the Troubles mostly simmer beneath the surface. Branagh gives Buddy (and, by extension, himself) the space to enjoy being a kid in a close-knit neighborhood, where you can shoddily plot with your cousin to rob a candy store and fret with your grandparents about talking to your classmate crush. He writes and captures these mundane but formative moments with all the joy, humor, and warmth that accompanies the nostalgia of youth. Belfast’s use of black-and-white cinematography is an obvious choice, but the charm it evokes is worth suspending the cynicism. With its funny and frequently touching beats, the film earns the smile it will put on your face. Strange as it is to say, you can accurately describe Belfast as a feel-good film, possibly one of the year’s best.
Hitting all the right notes with sincere earnestness, Belfast is easy to love. Branagh puts a lot of effort into creating this particular slice of life and making it feel welcoming and intimate, only to ding the illusion with the terror hiding in the shadows. Balancing childhood’s purities with adulthood’s harsh realities is tricky, but Branagh successfully pulls it off without disrupting the experience. The tonal shifts from comedy to drama don’t feel abrupt or jarring. Instead, Branagh perceives them as a child would, with a distance that isn’t quite understanding but acknowledging that something has changed and isn’t good.
Belfast is best when it sees through Buddy’s eyes, figuratively and literally. Jude Hill is an astonishingly vivid performer, able to communicate intense emotion just through those wide eyes of his. The abject fear etched into his face as his street crumbles into chaos is harrowing, and Branagh’s choice to film from his traumatized perspective – the camera circling him, the violence nearly consuming him – is powerful. He pulls back from Buddy’s point of view for significant swathes of the runtime to give the family their moments, and the film’s impact dampens slightly. We lose something intangible and unique without Hill’s evocative skill framing our experience. I wish Branagh would’ve kept close to Buddy’s vantage instead of following a more straightforward approach, but it doesn’t make the film less enjoyable.
Belfast’s uniformly excellent ensemble is also key to its success. Everyone comes together brilliantly to feel like an authentically close-knit Irish family. Aside from Hill, Catriona Balfe has the most emotional labor as a mother struggling with her dedication to her home and the complications driving her away from it. Hollywood has undervalued her for years, despite her sterling work on Outlander. Her fiery and tender-hearted portrayal of a loving woman fighting multiple fronts to protect her family will be impossible to ignore come Oscar season. Jamie Dornan will finally clear the stench of Fifty Shades with his charismatic performance that culminates in his singing “Everlasting Love,” a moment that perfectly encapsulates the film’s effortless charm. Even in their limited screentime, Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench make witty and surprisingly touching impressions.
It isn’t hard to see why Belfast debuted to such rapturous reception during the fall festival circuit. It ticks the right boxes of cultural relevance while transporting us to a time that decidedly isn’t our current one. Branagh’s recollections don’t offer anything remarkably fresh to the table, but his film radiates genuine affection. Sometimes that’s enough to win audiences over and as easy as it is to resent, Branagh and his cast merit the appreciation. Just look into Jude Hill’s wide-eyed gaze and try to begrudge him anything; it doesn’t pay.