Two-thirds of the way into Belfast, Judi Dench’s character Granny talks about how she thought she could jump into the world of Shangri-La from the film Lost Horizon. This is basically a perfect summary of how Kenneth Branagh invites you to Belfast, a film that feels like it was ripped from his own childhood memoirs. I can’t believe that most of what you see in Belfast came from imagination, it had to be personal and seeing how Kenneth Branagh stated recently that this is his most personal film, it certainly felt that way watching it.
Belfast spends its time with a Protestant family in the late 1960’s whose street is attacked by Protestant rioters looking to flush out any Catholic residents. The opening scene alone is enough to lay out the tone for the rest of the film, in only a couple of minutes, you know exactly how close this small community of neighbours are. They don’t see religion at all. It’s only when trouble comes to them, and they start to make makeshift barricades that you see a change, but not in the way you’d expect. Kenneth Branagh makes sure to show the characters show more community spirit but treat the ongoing threat of riots as an “elephant in the room (or neighbourhood in this case)”. Because of this, you share a similar viewing experience to what these characters are going through, you find it charming, but at any moment it could change.
It becomes a more agonising feeling the longer you spend with these characters because you take a liking to most very quickly. The young boy at the centre of it all, Buddy (Jude Hill), is one such character. If you’re a sucker for sweet characters, you’ll immediately fall in love with his innocence amongst a fearful backdrop. His coming-of-age story is one symbolised in the film by a “fork in the road” rhetoric, down one road is Buddy’s attempts to sit opposite classmate Catherine (Olive Tennant), for whom he develops feelings towards, the other is getting into trouble with a local girl named Moira (Lara McDonnell). Everything you see in Belfast is through the eyes of Buddy, this is how he sees events and people, so with this perspective, the core of the film is always morphing depending on how Buddy feels and sees things.
I was pleasantly surprised by the cinematography of Belfast. This is an amazingly shot film, especially the framing of characters during scenes where you have more than two talking. In one instance, you have Buddy talking with his Grandad or Pop (Ciarán Hinds) and Granny (Judi Dench) and in the scene, you have Buddy and Pop in the foreground and Granny in the background through an open window. It really is one of those things you have to see to understand how big an impact the film’s depth of field is. Of course, the most obvious element of Belfast’s cinematography is the choice of being a black and white film. This is the aspect the film needs justifying the most and given everything we already know about Belfast, black and white actually helps to give us a clearer view of the world Branagh has created.
Belfast has a real kitchen sink drama feel and structure about it, and this can be a turn off for some people, especially with how typical kitchen sink dramas are structured. There is a point A to B story structure but it is somewhat difficult to see this given how many short scenes are in Belfast. There are some scenes that can last not even for a minute before the film moves on, I will say they are almost like fulfilled promises to what characters say they will do, sometimes they work like with the family seeing Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in the cinema, other times not so well like when Buddy and Granny see A Christmas Carol (the only time the film reverts back to colour I might add).
There is a Christmas sequence in Belfast where some may call out on the film for unexpectedly utilising pleasant 60’s nostalgia in a quite serious film. I don’t think it’s too far a stretch to call it nostalgia either, it’s pretty easy nowadays to call out any object in a film and call it nostalgic. When you have Buddy dressed in a Thunderbirds costume and paying Subbuteo, yes it’s easy to make that link, but when you think about the context, it makes perfect sense for Buddy and his family to have a moment of genuine happiness.
I believe it would be very difficult to meet someone who saw Belfast and say they didn’t walk out feeling charmed by the film. The feeling of this film being personal to Kenneth Branagh is as clear as day, but what’s even better is how personal it feels to the cast as well. With the majority of the cast being from Northern Island, it not hard to realise why these performances feel so real. If there is one effect that Belfast can guarantee is that you will be moved by this family’s story and a sweet young boy coming of age.
Final Result: 8/10 – Very Good
Have you seen Belfast? What did you think? Please let me know your thoughts and opinions in the comments below.
Next Time: Sing 2