Finally hitting UK cinemas later this month is festival favourite and significant awards contender Belfast, Kenneth Branagh’s crowd-pleasing autobiography. Scooping an impressive seven nominations at the Golden Globes and eleven at the Critics Choice Awards, this an affectionate love letter to his childhood and home city.
Set in the tumultuous late 1960s of Northern Ireland, the family drama follows 9-year old Buddy (Jude Hill) as he grows up amongst increasing turmoil in his neighbourhood. As he grapples with school and his first blossoming crush, his parents face the biggest decision of their life – stay and hope the ever-growing conflict will pass, or leave everything behind to escape to England for a new life.
Branagh has wonderfully captured a vivid snapshot of life, love and loss in this tender and beautifully acted coming-of-age drama. While much of the narrative revolves around the tensions arising from the Troubles and the subsequent dilemma of whether to leave Northern Ireland, where the film truly comes alive is in the quieter, more familial day-to-day moments. The pinning of first love, the pure escapism of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Star Trek, adrenaline fuelled (and subsequent guilt-ridden) brush with crime as you’re dared to pinch from the local corner shop, the carefree time playing with your friends in the street and the confusion of seeing a loved one in hospital for the first time before your eyes – these formative childhood memories are all relived through the lens of Buddy.
The film is gently paced with a simmering undercurrent, and other than two impressively staged sequences – a terrifyingly unexpected attack on Catholic homes and a destructive riot by a local gang – there isn’t much in the way of outright tension or political anger. While this direction certainly won’t be for everyone, there’s no denying the charm and emotional drive of the performances, along with the heartbreaking central dilemma. Do you uproot your family and leave your hometown and everything you know in the hopes of escaping the violence for a better life? And if so, what happens to those you leave behind?
Dornan is on top form following Barb and Star and The Tourist, with a charming and fiercely protective turn (and yes he sings again!), sharing a strained and complex dynamic with Balfe’s long-suffering wife. However, it’s the brilliant pairing of Dench and Hinds as the enduring and ever loving granny and pop (with the former afforded several brilliantly sassy takedowns) along with the wide eyed but hugely impressive newcomer Jude Hill, who steal the show. Together, they strike a hugely authentic and affectionate family unit who you instantly root for throughout the many highs and lows.
Shot in stunning monochrome, (which appears to be a favourite amongst award contenders like C’mon, C’mon and The Tragedy of Macbeth) Belfast proves an intimate, personal film with portrait-esque framing and longer takes. The surprise of the violent opening, with the camera circling around a confused Buddy with fire bombs and bricks flying in the background, proves a real technical feat and highlight. The much promoted “Everlasting Love” musical number is another wonderful emotional slice, along with the many Van Morrison musical montages.
Featuring incredibly moving performances and a sentimental touch, Belfast is Kenneth Branagh’s moving ode to childhood in a turbulent time.