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2021, Drama, 1h 37m
What to know
A deeply personal project for writer-director Kenneth Branagh, Belfast transcends its narrative deficits with powerful performances and directorial craft. Read critic reviews
Belfast is uplifting in spite of the story's tragic details -- although you might need to listen closely in order to understand some of the dialogue. Read audience reviews
Where to watch Belfast
Rent Belfast on Vudu, Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV, or buy it on Vudu, Amazon Prime Video.
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Belfast videos, belfast photos.
BELFAST is a movie straight from Branagh's own experience. A nine-year-old boy must chart a path towards adulthood through a world that has suddenly turned upside down. His stable and loving community and everything he thought he understood about life is changed forever but joy, laughter, music and the formative magic of the movies remain.
Rating: PG-13 (Strong Language|Some Violence)
Original Language: English (United Kingdom)
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Producer: Kenneth Branagh , Laura Berwick , Becca Kovacik , Tamar Thomas
Writer: Kenneth Branagh
Release Date (Theaters): Nov 12, 2021 wide
Release Date (Streaming): Dec 2, 2021
Box Office (Gross USA): $9.2M
Runtime: 1h 37m
Distributor: Focus Features
Production Co: TKBC
Aspect Ratio: Flat (1.85:1)
Cast & Crew
Úna Ní Dhonghaíle
Claire Nia Richards
News & Interviews for Belfast
Awards Leaderboard: Top Movies of 2021
Where to Watch the 2022 Oscar Nominees
Oscar Nominations 2022: Full List of Nominated Films, Actors, Directors, and Filmmakers
Critic Reviews for Belfast
Audience reviews for belfast.
Simple, yet compelling, landing most of its punches indirectly on its steady path to a knockout.
Ken Branagh's unabashed Oscar grab proves that simply memorizing Shakespeare does not necessarily make one a good writer, but the guy does understand his intended audiences. And so this piece, a nostalgic nod to what? The old days? Mom? Family? The old neighborhood? "And even if times were hard, didn't we all have each other?" Seen through the eyes of a young boy this is moviemaking by an old hand at what pleases the hoi polloi. And while there is probably no Best Picture award for the work itself, I am certain that Dame Judi Dench will have to explain at the airport the extra weight in her suitcase when she flies home from Hollywood.
Far more predictable (it owes a lot to other and much better coming of age movies) and devoid of any real tension than I think a lot people are willing to admit but that's probably because it is admittedly charming and the performances are delightful.
Kenneth Branagh returns to his boyhood home with Belfast, a coming of age story set during the Troubles in 1969 where Protestant mobs were targeting Irish Catholics. The movie is partly autobiographical as we follow young Buddy (newcomer Jude Hill) and his parents (Jamie Dornan, Caitriona Balfe) and grandparents (Cirian Hinds, Judi Dench) dealing with life as their neighborhood block more resembles a war zone. There are dangerous influences and dark intentions on the peripheral, but we're mostly at kid level, where his days are preoccupied with sitting closer to his crush in school and wanting to impress his older cousin and be accepted. The parental perspective is kept to offhand whsipers and weighty conversations about moving away or staying behind. The black and white photography is gorgeous and exquisitely composed, looking like old family photos come to rich life. The actors are charming and heartfelt, and when called upon deliver emotional fury. The problem with Belfast, and it feels means to even cite it as such, is that everything is just a little too nice, a little too clean, a little too safe. The childhood perspective doesn't quite jibe with the political instability at hand. It's not a Jojo Rabbit where that disconnect is the point for reflection. It's clearly Branagh's love letter to his family and native land. It feels like entire scenes have been plucked directly from Branagh's nostalgic memories. It also feels like the characters are more sweet-smiling composites than real people. It's all been romanticized with Branagh's personal nostalgia, reshaping the odd angles and dangling conflicts into something more sentimentally safe, easy, and digestible. Belfast is a perfectly enjoyable movie but it feels like a simple TV movie-of-the-week, crowd-pleasing version of a more complex story worthy of greater nuance and scrutiny. Nate's Grade: B
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Belfast review – Branagh’s chocolate box vision of his childhood
Kenneth Branagh’s monochrome film of growing up in 60s Northern Ireland offers nostalgia but avoids getting to grips with the Troubles
K enneth Branagh’s unabashedly feelgood memoir of growing up in Belfast as the Troubles erupted in the late 1960s suffers from a problem of perspective. Canted camera angles are rendered in flat, too-clean black and white; the film leans hard into its deliberately skewed child’s point of view. Nine-year-old Buddy (newcomer Jude Hill) hops, skips and jumps through rows of chocolate-box terrace houses to a bouncy soundtrack of Van Morrison. His family, which includes Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds’s cutesy Granny and Pop, find solace at the movies.
Buddy’s family are Protestants; their Catholic neighbours will soon be driven out of their homes by sectarian hostility. Jamie Dornan’s Pa is a labourer working in England who returns home to a growing pile of unpaid bills and violence brewing on the streets. The impressionable Buddy is encouraged by a schoolfriend to loot a supermarket; implausibly, Ma (Caitríona Balfe) marches him back into the thick of the violence to return a box of stolen washing powder.
The patina of nostalgia is used to avoid contextualising the Troubles, something the family feels separate from. A 30-year conflict that started with civil rights protests is boiled down to a vague problem of “bloody religion”. After all, Buddy’s crush is a Catholic. “She could be a vegetarian antichrist for all I care,” Pa reassures him.
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Kenneth Branagh and Ciarán Hinds: Belfast boys on growing up across the divide
Dune and The Power of the Dog lead Bafta nominations as awards move on from Noel Clarke
‘I grew up with Branagh in Belfast: our childhoods haunt his new film’
‘I got really lucky’: Caitríona Balfe, star of Belfast, on fame, family and fans
Belfast and Boiling Point top British independent film award nominations
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“Belfast” is unquestionably Kenneth Branagh ’s most personal film to date, but it’s also sure to have universal resonance. It depicts a violent, tumultuous time in Northern Ireland, but it does so through the innocent, exuberant eyes of a nine-year-old boy. And it’s shot in gentle black-and-white, with sporadic bursts of glorious color.
In recalling his youthful days in an insular neighborhood in the titular city, Branagh has made a film that’s both intimate and ambitious—his “ Roma ,” if you’ll forgive the inevitable comparison to Alfonso Cuarón ’s recent masterpiece. That’s quite a balancing act the writer/director attempts to pull off, and for the most part, he succeeds. It’s hard not to be charmed by this love letter to a pivotal place and time in his childhood, and to the people who helped shape him into the singular cultural force he’d become. Long before the dedication that plays in front of the closing credits—“For the ones who stayed. For the ones who left. And for all the ones who were lost.”—we can feel Branagh’s wistful heart on his sleeve.
And yet, because we’re witnessing the events of the summer of 1969 from the perspective of a sweet child named Buddy—Branagh’s stand-in, played by the irrepressibly winsome Jude Hill —there can be an oversimplification of the upheaval at work, as well as an emotional distancing in the way the film is shot. We see and hear things the way Buddy does: in snippets and whispers, through open windows and cracked doors, down narrow hallways and across the cramped living room, where “ Star Trek ” always seems to be on the TV. ( Haris Zambarloukos , who has shot several of Branagh’s films including “Cinderella” and “Murder on the Orient Express,” provides the evocative, black-and-white cinematography.) When a Protestant mob charges down his block as he’s playing make-believe in the middle of the street, trying to root out the neighboring Catholic families, the trash can lid he’d been using as a toy shield suddenly becomes a vital piece of protection against flying rocks.
This is the constant push-pull that serves as a through-line in “Belfast.” It’s a film that frequently feels at odds with itself, resulting in equal amounts of poignancy and frustration. Ultimately, though, the sincerity on display wins you over. You’d have to be made of stone otherwise, especially in the simple, quiet moments when Buddy learns valuable life lessons to the strains of Van Morrison . (Yes, the words feel cheesy as I’m typing them, but gosh darn it, that kid is adorable.) It’s a lovely touch that the girl Buddy has a crush on—a pig-tailed blonde who happens to be Catholic—also happens to be the smartest student in class, and the way he woos her inspires fond laughter.
Given Branagh’s longtime stature as an actor, it’s no surprise that he’s drawn warm, authentic performances from his top-tier, perfectly chosen cast. Within this modest, working-class, Protestant setting, Buddy views his parents as movie-star glamorous—larger-than-life as the actors in the pictures he yearns to see each weekend at the local movie house. Known to him (and to us) only as Ma and Pa, his mother ( Caitriona Balfe ) is elegant and feisty, while his father ( Jamie Dornan ) is charismatic and kindhearted. Judi Dench and Ciaran Hinds have an effortless chemistry as his grandparents, teasing each other mercilessly from a place of deep love and affection and a lifetime of commitment—to each other, to this place. The scene in which they transition breezily from giving each other a hard time to dancing in the living room, Pop serenading Granny in her ear as he holds her close, is perhaps the film’s highlight.
It’s a brief respite from the growing danger that’s surrounding them, disrupting the feeling of camaraderie that’s connected families on this block for decades, regardless of their religious or political beliefs. Buddy struggles to understand The Troubles, as they’d come to be known, and entreats the grown-ups he trusts to enlighten him. These exchanges may seem cutesy but they hammer home the senselessness of the violence that tore this region apart for so long. They also affirm once again what astonishingly subtle actors Dench and Hinds are; the way they find nuance and heartache in simple platitudes is a marvel to behold. (And speaking of Marvel, Branagh inserts a brief but clever reference to his own role as a filmmaker shepherding along the MCU.)
Within the steady hum of the threat Buddy and his family face is an impossible decision: Do they stay in this neighborhood where they’ve lived their whole lives, where everyone knows everyone, or do they move somewhere safer and start over? Pa’s work has been taking him to England for weeks at a time as he tries to pay off his debts—maybe the whole family should just join him there? Or perhaps a city that’s idyllic but far away, like Vancouver or Sydney? The achingly romantic final shot signals their choice in a way that hits harder than any of the nostalgia that came before it.
"Belfast" will be playing in theaters starting November 12th.
Christy Lemire is a longtime film critic who has written for RogerEbert.com since 2013. Before that, she was the film critic for The Associated Press for nearly 15 years and co-hosted the public television series "Ebert Presents At the Movies" opposite Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, with Roger Ebert serving as managing editor. Read her answers to our Movie Love Questionnaire here .
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Rated PG-13 for some violence and strong language.
Caitriona Balfe as Ma
Judi Dench as Granny
Jude Hill as Buddy
Jamie Dornan as Pa
Ciarán Hinds as Pop
Lara McDonnell as Moira
Gerard Horan as Uncle Jack
- Kenneth Branagh
- Haris Zambarloukos
- Úna Ní Dhonghaíle
- Van Morrison
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‘Belfast’ Review: A Boy’s Life
In this charming memoir, Kenneth Branagh recalls his childhood in Northern Ireland through a rose-tinted lens.
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By Jeannette Catsoulis
Romanticism reigns in “Belfast,” Kenneth Branagh’s cinematic memoir of his childhood in a turbulent Northern Ireland. From the lustrous, mainly black-and-white photography to the cozy camaraderie of its working-class setting, the movie softens edges and hearts alike. The family at its center might have health issues, money worries and an outdoor toilet, but this is no Ken Loach-style deprivation: In these streets, grit and glamour stroll hand-in-hand.
So when Ma (Caitriona Balfe) sits in her doorway to peel potatoes for dinner, what we notice is the soft afternoon light dancing on her luminous skin and brunette curls. And when Pa (Jamie Dornan), square of jaw and shoulder, strides toward home after a spell working in England, the camera shoots him like a returning hero. Which, of course, he is, at least to his younger son, Buddy (a wonderful Jude Hill), a smart, cheery 9-year-old and a fictional version of Branagh himself.
Viewed largely through Buddy’s eyes, “Belfast,” which opens in August, 1969 (after a brief, colorful montage of the present-day city), is about the destruction of an idyll. Mere minutes into the film, a hail of Molotov cocktails ignites the friendly neighborhood where Catholics and Protestants live amicably side-by-side. A swirling camera conveys Buddy’s confusion and terror; yet, even as the barricades go up and the local bully-boy (Colin Morgan) tries to draw Buddy’s Protestant family into his campaign to “cleanse the community” of its Catholic residents, the movie refuses to get bogged down in militancy.
Instead, we watch Buddy play ball with his cousins; moon over a pretty classmate; watch “Star Trek” and Westerns on television; and spend time with his loving grandparents (Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds). Drawing from his own experiences, Branagh crafts nostalgic, sentimental scenes suffused with some of Van Morrison’s warmest songs . Family visits to movies like “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” (1968) add wonder and fantasy to Buddy’s life and a clue to his future career. They also offer an escape from a conflict he doesn’t understand and his director refuses to elucidate. Snippets of television news play in the background, but the growing Troubles that would tear the country apart are not the story that Branagh (whose family moved to England when he was nine) wants to tell.
So while “Belfast” is, in one sense, a deeply personal coming-of-age tale, it’s also a more universal story of displacement and detachment, located most powerfully in Balfe’s fierce, shining performance. Her authenticity steadies the heartbeat of a film whose cuteness can sometimes grate, and whose telescoped view offers little sense of life beyond Buddy’s block. Branagh’s remembrances may be idealized, but with “Belfast” he has written a charming, rose-tinted thank-you note to the city that sparked his dreams and the parents whose sacrifices helped them come true.
Belfast Rated PG-13 for loud bangs and angry bullies. Running time: 1 hour 38 minutes. In theaters.
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Belfast film review: A film about the Troubles that isn’t about the Troubles at all
The celebrated director’s twinkly-eyed childhood memoir chooses not to reckon with reality, article bookmarked.
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Dir: Kenneth Branagh. Starring: Caitriona Balfe, Judi Dench, Jamie Dornan, Ciaran Hinds, Colin Morgan, Jude Hill. 12A, 98 minutes.
Kenneth Branagh ’s Belfast is a film about the Troubles that, when you dig into it, isn’t so much about the Troubles at all. A twinkly-eyed childhood memoir – and rigorously fashioned to be an Oscar frontrunner – it’s set during the cold months of 1969, when outbursts of sectarian violence across Northern Ireland marked a change in the air. It’s now recognised as the very start of a three-decade conflict, leaving scars still far from healed.
The Troubles drive the central conflict of the film, as two parents – played by Caitriona Balfe and Jamie Dornan – make the most difficult decision of their lives: do they leave Belfast and the only home they’ve ever known, or risk the safety of their two young sons? They are a Protestant family living in a majority Protestant area, but coexisting peacefully with their Catholic neighbours. But, to some, not taking a side is the same as taking a side. Fire and shattering glass do not discriminate.
There is a lopsidedness, though, to Belfast ’s point of view, which comes out just as tilted as the Dutch angles that Branagh’s become so reliant upon as a director. We experience events as its protagonist does, youngest son Buddy (Jude Hill, funny and innocent) serving as a stand-in for Branagh’s own childhood self. The film, then, jolts with excitement every time Buddy bundles himself into the seat of a local auditorium, and gazes up in wonder at a screening of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang or a production of A Christmas Carol . Belfast , above all, exists to detail how its director would one day become that multi-hyphenate titan of the British arts, as famous for his exuberant takes on Shakespeare as he is for hamming it up in the Harry Potter films.
While Belfast largely plays out in black and white, Buddy’s early exposure to the arts is rendered in ecstatic explosions of colour. When coupled with the only other use of colour – in a tourist reel of a prologue accompanied by the bluesy beat of Van Morrison – these sequences suggest that the arts of Branagh’s youth allowed him to look directly into his own future. Belfast feels precious in that way, but also a little slight. As a monochrome memoir, the film superficially shares much in common with Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma , which revisited the director’s childhood in Mexico City through the eyes of his family’s one-time domestic worker. But the souls of these films feel worlds apart. Branagh doesn’t seem as eager as Cuaron to interrogate his own memories, or to reckon with how the protective veil of one’s parents can shield a child from reality.
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The minor-key pleasure of daily, juvenile toils will do nicely instead. Buddy fosters a crush on a schoolmate and attempts to steal sweets from a local shop. His parents seem so glamorous and impossibly noble that they could surely have only been conjured up by the memories of a beloved child. Dornan possesses the quiet, romantic intensity of a man just trying to do right by his family; Balfe carries her resilience with a regal elegance. Their characters are tremendously in love – the film’s best scene is one where father croons “Everlasting Love”, while mother dances in the warm embrace of a spotlight. Buddy’s grandparents ( Judi Dench and Ciaran Hinds), meanwhile, have been married for so long that they now seem to work in perfect sync – they dance and sing, too, while doling out advice with the kind of majesty that only actors such as Dench and Hinds can confidently deliver.
The real talk – violence, religion, identity, politics – appears only in short, sharp bursts. And true hatred is far too conveniently condensed into a single, straightforwardly villainous figure (Colin Morgan). There’s an artificial neatness to Buddy’s world: ground that seems like it’s never been walked on before; gates that have been barely touched by passing hands. That’s easily explained by the fact that, because of the pandemic, Branagh elected to shoot on a studio backlot instead of a real street. But it might better serve his vision of Belfast – one that’s not so much about the lives we lead, but the ones the silver screen allows us to dream of.
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Belfast film review: Branagh’s playful nostalgia warms the heart even as it makes blood run cold
A winner at Toronto, and tipped to snag more big prizes at the Baftas and Oscars, Kenneth Branagh ’s latest movie is a semi-autobiographical drama about growing up during the Troubles. Though it contains sentimental and self-serving moments, (and presses the ‘killer Van Morrison track’ button way too often), I loved it. The majority of the scenes may be shot in black and white, but the logic that underpins the story is anything but.
It’s 1969 and North Belfast urchin, Buddy (Jude Hill), is obsessed with football, dragons, comics and his brainy, dainty classmate, Catherine (Olive Tennant).
Buddy’s family live in a “mixed” neighbourhood and our hero is flabbergasted when a riot takes place in his street, designed to scare off Catholics. Buddy’s clan are Protestants, but his Pa ( Jamie Dornan ), Ma (Caitriona Balfe), older brother, Will (Lewis McAskie) and grandparents, Pop and Granny (Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench) despise the “gangsters” spear-heading the unrest. Militia leader Billy Clanton (Colin Morgan) insists all Protestants offer “cash or commitment”. And though Pa refuses to do either, Will and Buddy get swept up in the violence. As the British army become a permanent fixture in the area, Pa – mostly working in England, as a joiner – implores Ma to consider a re-location.
While full of (cracking) jokes, Belfast is incredibly tense. What’s taking place is ethnic cleansing (Clanton uses the word “cleanse”) and what makes it so confounding is that the lovely, Protestant families on Buddy’s street are complicit in the process.
Pa is referred to, twice, as a “lone ranger”, while a series of edits, and the Tex Ritter ballad High Noon link him to Gary Cooper’s Will Kane. He’s also shot from below, so he looms above us, and his excellent hand and eye coordination (he’s an expert bowler) pays dividends in a post-looting stand-off that shows the whole, pulchritudinous family pulling together to rout the gun-toting Clanton.
I’m guessing the real Mr and Mrs Branagh didn’t save their son from a bullet to the head. Which doesn’t rankle because, seconds after this dramatic and rapturous scene, Pop says the loyalists will now “send someone serious” after Pa, making clear that Clanton was always a footling foe and that the problem is so much bigger than the movie-dazzled Buddy can comprehend.
To put it another way, Buddy has the same name as the innocent protagonist of cosy Christmas classic, Elf. And Hinds’ magnificently wise and twinkly-eyed Pop definitely owes something to Santa Claus. But don’t be fooled. Nothing can magic away the prejudice that rips this community apart. And anyone who says this personal movie isn’t political is kidding themselves.
The cinematography and sound design, by the way, are a treat. In one sequence, the camera takes a 360 degree twirl, as time gets woozy and the world goes quiet. There’s also wicked fun to be had contrasting Pa and Ma’s immaculate, spartan, rented home with the grandparents’ more rickety gaff. The camera loiters at the open windows of both houses, allowing us to get a good look at Pop’s TV, which looks as if it’s been feasted on by mice.
True, the visuals in Roma (a film to which Belfast has been much compared) are more original. On the other hand, it’s rare, even in this day and age, for a director to have working-class roots and Branagh flies the flag beautifully for anyone whose child-care routine involved a granny, rather than a nanny.
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Branagh - who mis-used Dench horribly in Artemis Fowl - has now atoned for that crime. Dench, like the whole cast, is irresistible. And as well as making a decent fist of the Belfast accent, she gets the last word. As Granny watches loved ones leave, Dench growls, with a fury indistinguishable from grief, “Go now, and don’t look back.”
Branagh, of course, has chosen to disobey that command. He’s a highly esteemed director but for me, this is the first project he’s made that doesn’t labour to impress. Belfast casually acknowledges the nastiness of existence. Here’s to a playful take on nostalgia, that somehow warms your heart, even as it makes your blood run cold.
98mins, 12A. In cinemas
12 Nov 2021
Belfast , Kenneth Branagh ’s semi-autobiographical take on growing up in Northern Ireland’s capital during the tumultuous ’60s, ends with a dedication for the ones who stayed, left and were lost. It’s a sentiment redolent of the filmmaker’s big-hearted, emotionally direct approach. While it lacks the dramatic heft of the similar Roma , Branagh applies epic filmmaking style, driven by a bouncy Van Morrison score, to a small, intimate scenario. Winning the People’s Choice Award at Toronto, Belfast doesn’t tell a linear yarn; instead, it’s an assemblage of anecdotes and moments that will charm and spark with wherever and whenever you grew up.
It starts in colour with a touristy view of the city — the Harland & Wolff docks, the Titanic hotel — until a crane shot moving over a wall reveals a street in 1969, now in striking black-and-white. Cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos’ camera flies and glides around the busy street, which turns into a riot as Protestant gangs torch Catholic homes. Caught in the melee is nine-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill), the youngest member of a Protestant family that includes Buddy’s older brother Will (an under-served Lewis McAskie), Pa ( Jamie Dornan ), who works over the water as a joiner to pay off tax debts so is rarely home, Ma ( Outlander ’s Caitriona Balfe ), doggedly keeping the family on the straight and narrow, plus Pop ( Ciarán Hinds ) and Granny ( Judi Dench ).
Balfe is the star here — the chemistry she shares with Dornan is tangible.
The Troubles serves as an undercurrent rather than a leading player, making Belfast much more of a memory movie than a political diatribe. Most of the film is concerned with Buddy’s misunderstandings (about politics and religion) and misadventures (falls for the local Catholic swot, mucks up stealing a Turkish Delight), Hill making a natural, engaging Branagh surrogate. Dornan is a mostly genial dad figure, while Hinds and Dench drop moments of gravitas, but Balfe is the star here and gives the film’s stand-out speech about the dangers of leaving home — the chemistry she shares with Dornan is tangible.
Branagh’s filmmaking frequently goes for broke. Sometimes it misses — using High Noon ’s ‘Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darlin’’ to turn a street showdown into a Western face-off cheapens the moment — but mostly it’s grandiloquent and luminous. He’s also mounted an affectionate tribute to late-’60s childhood ephemera (footballer Danny Blanchflower, Thunderbirds suits, Corgi Aston Martin DB5s) and visits to the movies splashed with colour, life through different eyes; though a trip to see Chitty Chitty Bang Bang feels a little over-the-top — the family reacting to flying sequences like they are on a rollercoaster. Branagh’s movie-movie tendencies emerge again when Pa launches into an exuberant rendition of ‘Everlasting Love’, sung to his wife. Still, Belfast is the kind of film where you occasionally print the legend, not the truth. And given the context in which Branagh grew up, you can absolutely see why.
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Belfast film review: Kenneth Branagh’s memoir is black-and-white and rose-tinted all over
The film is aggresively apolitical but as romanticised reverie it could hardly be bettered.
Director and writer Kenneth Branagh has described the process of making Belfast, a semi-autobiographical comedy drama set in 1969, at the start of the Troubles, as "very emotional" as the film makes its European premiere at the London Film Festival.
Kenneth Branagh’s idealisation of his home city before the Fall plays out to some of Van Morrison’s most soothing melodies. Makes sense. We join Belfast in the last year of the 1960s – as the Troubles surge and Morrison’s first great solo period peaks. Indeed, the whole film plays like one of the singer’s later, sentimental, spoken-word pieces. Gently tapped brass. Tinkly piano. “Matchbox cars. Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Soap flakes. Thunderbirds are go. Don’t you wish it could be like this all the time?” Aggressively apolitical, Belfast will do little to educate the wider world about the inequalities that fertilised the coming violence. But, as romanticised reverie – black-and-white and rose-tinted all over – it could hardly be bettered.
Shot largely on clean sets, the film stages its riots like dance numbers in a golden-age musical
The film has taken so long to get here it feels as if it has already been through two or three complete critical cycles. A hit at Telluride and Toronto, where it won the influential People's Choice Award, Belfast is, with most bookies, still marginal favourite for best picture at the Oscars. Why not? A clatter of the era's best actors engage joyfully with the director's economic, autobiographical screenplay. Caitríona Balfe and Jamie Dornan are knitting-pattern gorgeous as parents to newcomer Jude Hill's cheeky young tyke. Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench manage the platonic ideal of kindly Ulster grandparents. Shot largely on clean sets, the film stages its riots like dance numbers in a golden-age musical. The word "irresistible" is, well, hard to resist.
We begin with a title sequence that is a little too close to a Fáilte Ireland commercial for comfort. Cut to a new, indifferent Morrison song, the montage takes us past colour images of contemporary Belfast before peering over a fence and encountering a black-and-white idyll. There are shades here of Alfonso Cuaron's Roma (which Branagh hadn't seen when he began production), but we are closer in spirit to Terence Davies's equally autobiographical The Long Day Closes. In both films, set only a few hundred miles apart, a stand-in for the young director escapes from the everyday at his local flea pit. Lest we be in any doubt as to the filmmaker's intentions, young Buddy is seen reading a Thor comic – a character later adapted for the MCU by Branagh. Unlike Davies's version of Liverpool, this take on Belfast seems scarcely less glamorous than the images screened at the neighbourhood Odeon. Why bother with High Noon when you have equally attractive variants on Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly at home?
That winding in of escapist pop culture with the film's heightened reality hits a crag when Buddy's Da explicitly takes on the Cooper persona as loyalist hoodlums circle. Despite the rising strains of Do Not Forsake Me, the misguided scene is less suggestive of High Noon than of a Milky Bar commercial. Elsewhere the filmmakers just about get away with the balancing act. Having committed himself to a sunnier take on potentially harrowing material, Branagh is wise to tiptoe around the sectarian politics. The religious jokes are mostly at the expense of the family's Protestant preconceptions. "I've nothing against Catholics, but it's a religion of fear," one of the community says. We then cut straight to a non-conformist minister yelling about an "eternal pit of suffering". Greater divisions loom for working-class communities that then still enjoyed a degree of integration.
We always know where the story is heading, but that does nothing to dull its ruthless emotional twists
As we might expect from a Branagh film, the few moments of awkwardness are nudged aside by consistently excellent performances. Hill stays just the right side of cute. Balfe and Dornan confirm their status as cask-strength movie stars. Hinds twinkles as a wise old rogue. Dench, a long-time collaborator of the director, has the smallest of the five big roles, but makes the biggest impact with a brief, late speech that could draw tears from a barmbrack. With worries gathering around the fictional parents and our nagging knowledge of Branagh’s ultimate removal to Reading, we always know where the story is heading, but that does nothing to dull its ruthless emotional twists.
A gorgeous, proudly unreliable glance over the shoulder. A tribute to an often maligned city. No doubt a source of incoming controversy. What else would you expect from a film called Belfast?
Opens on January 21st
Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist
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Belfast is Kenneth Branagh’s flawed but moving portrait of the Troubles
Branagh takes a monochrome-tinted view of the rising tensions in Belfast, 1969, as seen through the eyes of a young boy (Jude Hill) and set to the sounds of Van Morrison.
17 January 2022
By Trevor Johnston
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► Belfast is in UK cinemas from 21 January.
Since Thor in 2011, Kenneth Branagh’s directorial trajectory on film has largely been as a safe pair of hands tackling various commercial franchise assignments. When Covid intervened to delay the release of the already completed Death on the Nile – his second Hercule Poirot offering, lockdown time at home allowed him to ponder a more personal project; this autobiographical drama recalling a turning point in his own family’s life is the result. Shot mainly in very clean black and white to underline its arthouse ambitions, it demonstrates Branagh’s profound investment in the material, but also displays his struggle to downsize from a broader cinematic canvas to a more intimate scale.
Buddy, the nine-year-old boy caught up in the turmoil of the nascent Troubles, clearly represents young master Branagh. Thanks to Jude Hill’s bright-eyed, uncannily believable performance, Belfast picks up every time he’s on screen, while Branagh’s writing affectingly shapes the vulnerability and stroppy petulance of this innocent pitched into jeopardy.
Many viewers of a certain age will find their own childhood memories flooding back on seeing Buddy in his Thunderbirds International Rescue uniform on Christmas Day, playing Subbuteo at home, or thrilling as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang takes flight on a family outing to the cinema. Branagh retains that film’s original Technicolor, presenting Buddy with an imaginative escape from his black-and-white surroundings; he opens the movie, too, with touristy colour footage of today’s spruced-up city, set to the sounds of local hero Van Morrison, whose back catalogue provides an occasionally jarringly soulful accompaniment throughout the action. If that prelude gives the impression we’re in for a celluloid love letter to Branagh’s birthplace, however, the blissful mood is swiftly shattered.
Buddy is merrily skipping on the sunny side of the street when an angry crowd floods the area, hurling rocks, petrol bombs and abuse. It’s 15 August 1969 and the Troubles have arrived at this previously contented spot, where residents across the religious divide have been rubbing along together. With 360-degree tracking shots and multiple angles, Branagh frames this as a big action-movie moment; counter-productively, this takes us out of the reality he’s trying to recreate (which unfolds on a terraced-street set knocked up on an exhibition-centre car park in Hampshire, and looking every bit of it).
Opting not to fill in the NI civil rights-era political background, the film remains light on context, instead conveying the child’s confusion and the principled refusal of his dad (Jamie Dornan) to join the bullies. But after this explosive opening salvo, the film rather fails to build much tension from the Protestant gang’s flaccid attempts to pressure him into joining their anti-Catholic cause. Branagh slips in footage from Zinnemann’s High Noon as it conveniently plays on TV , which fails to provide suspense-by-association, while the father’s carpentry job in England, which somehow allows him to slip away and return at will, delivers deflating nick-of-time relief at moments when threat levels are rising. Never mind the travel expenses, it’s implausibly convenient, yet the script needs this English angle in place to suggest a potential third-act familial escape route.
What we’re left with is a movie that treads water much of the way and distracts attention with various under-written, though often charming, bits and pieces. A hellfire preacher leaves Buddy momentarily fearing damnation if he takes the wrong path, before he and we forget all about it; some pre-pubescent romance with a clever Catholic classmate (in a country where schools were generally religiously segregated?) adds light comedy; and Caitríona Balfe, as ‘Ma’, gives a decent account of herself in the big speechifying moments, facing the choice of a brighter future for her children at the painful cost of separating her household from the North Belfast community. Judi Dench too proves surprisingly convincing as the gimlet-eyed granny, though Ciarán Hinds (19 years her junior in real-life) as her steadfast husband feels like a poor casting choice, and their on-screen relationship never really recovers.
Frankly, there are myriad flubs here, but Branagh just about gets away with it – we root so strongly for Buddy that we’re perhaps unduly forgiving of the narrative shambles around him. The point of view is also hard to work out, a sort of anonymous overview that could have been more precisely rendered. Branagh is no Terence Davies. Still, his unsparing and unforgiving attitude towards Protestant bigotry makes a potent statement, and the decision to lift his head above the parapet deserves respect.
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