Belfast – Film Review
by Fran Winston
Directed by: Kenneth Branagh
Starring: Caitríona Balfe, Judi Dench, Jamie Dornan, Ciarán Hinds, Colin Morgan, Jude Hill
In cinemas January 21st
This semi-biographical coming of age comedy-drama from Kenneth Branagh hits cinemas having already made a massive impact on the world stage. It was named one of the Best Films of 2021 by the National Board of Review in the US and tied with The Power of the Dog for a leading seven nominations at the Golden Globe Awards (with Kenneth Branagh winning Best screenplay, motion picture). It also tied with Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story for a leading eleven nominations at the Critics’ Choice Awards. But will Irish audiences hold it in such affection given the subject matter is still in living memory?
Loosely based on Branagh’s own childhood, it chronicles the life of a working-class Northern Irish Protestant family during The Troubles. Told through the eyes of 9-year-old Buddy (Hill), who is more concerned with getting his crush to notice him than the chaos going on in his hometown, we follow his family as they debate emigrating to get away from the violence. With his father (Dornan) already working in England the family are somewhat disjointed as his Ma (Balfe) tries to hold them together.
I saw Branagh interviewed about this project as part of the Belfast Media Festival in 2020 and it was obvious that it was very personal to him. Shot entirely in black and white, at times it feels like he may be recalling a more halcyon Belfast than many others remember. He certainly used his rose-tinted glasses when looking back at his childhood.
Thankfully the brilliant performances ensure that it never descends into schmaltz. Young Hill is a revelation as Buddy and he belies his tender years. The entire ensemble does an impressive job and you can feel the familial warmth oozing from the screen. This is one of those films where even when nothing is happening there is a lot going on. The writing is beautiful with plenty of wit and humour to counteract the violence. At its heart, this is a family story rather than a drama about sectarian hatred.
By not taking a heavy hand with the politics this becomes more of a romanticised view of what was a deeply tumultuous period for so many living in Belfast. However, it is possible that this is exactly how he saw the Belfast of his childhood. Steeped in nostalgia for a community that may not have existed exactly as Branagh recalls, this is nonetheless an extremely engaging film that warms the cockles of your heart.