Belfast (Review): Balfe & Dornan Delight in Branagh’s Best Film
Belfast is cinema at its most magical and moving – a compassionate ode to childhood full of passionate performances from its exceptional ensemble cast.
Kenneth Branagh has quite a fascinating filmography as a director, to put it plainly. From Shakespearean sagas (Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet) to superhero spectacles (Thor) to fairy tale fantasies (Cinderella) to spy stories (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) to audacious book adaptations (Murder on the Orient Express, Artemis Fowl), Branagh has covered almost every genre known to man since his directorial debut just over three decades ago, but his latest feature, Belfast, still surprisingly represents new terrain for one of the most talented and versatile artists of his generation.
The film, which Branagh describes as his “most personal” picture yet, takes the revered writer-director back to his roots, as he confronts the complex emotions of his childhood and revisits the relationships that molded him into the man he is today. Such sentimental storytelling has made Belfast quite a hit this awards season – as it’s already acquired numerous audience awards at various film festivals, including TIFF’s People’s Choice Award – but is it possible for any film, least of all a “little indie” like this, to live up to such staggering hype? Well, rest assured, Belfast does that and more, with Branagh truly delivering one of the best films of the year in this lusciously crafted love letter to the city where he grew up and the people who helped him persevere through the plights that plagued his young life.
The year is 1969. The setting is – shockingly! – a booming Belfast, Northern Ireland, where the streets are full of frivolity and the kids are causing all sorts of chaos, including our plucky protagonist, Buddy (newcomer Jude Hill, serving as Branagh’s “stand-in” for this story). When his mother (the captivating Caitríona Balfe, of Outlander fame) calls him in for tea, Buddy starts skipping his way home, only to be caught in a riotous religious conflict that, quite literally, ends in explosions, as a group of pernicious Protestants orders all Catholics off this street, intending to “purge” the community of their so-called “insidious influence.” Though Ma is able to comfort her child this time around, allowing both she and he to escape the anarchy, it’s clear that Belfast’s troubles are just beginning.
As barricades go up and soldiers start patrolling the street, the citizens try to return to life as normal – which, for Buddy, means courting his crush at school, getting swept up in shenanigans with older kids, and being mesmerized by the movies (from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang). But, as the belligerent Billy Clanton (Colin Morgan, of Merlin and The Huntsman: Winter’s War) enhances his anti-Catholic efforts, he makes it a mission to recruit all of Belfast’s other Protestants to his sinister side, including Buddy’s father Pa (Jamie Dornan, of Fifty Shades of Grey and Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar), who remains resistant to this raucousness.
However, Clanton isn’t a man who takes no for an answer, and Pa’s protestation puts Buddy’s family in his crosshairs. With this targeting – and the still unfolding unrest in their formerly tight-knit society – Pa plans to leave Belfast once and for all, for safety’s sake. But, as Ma emphatically exclaims, how can they leave the only home they’ve ever known? Especially when it means abandoning Pa’s parents – the gregarious Granny (Judi Dench, of Skyfall and Cats) and the playful Pop (Ciarán Hinds, of There Will Be Blood and Zack Snyder’s Justice League) – as well?
One could say there’s a simplicity to Belfast’s storytelling (it doesn’t complicate its conflicts beyond what’s already been discussed, and though The Troubles sets the movie in motion, it never gets into the “nitty-gritty” of the broader sociocultural context of said event) but, at the same time, that’s also its biggest strength. Branagh, by using Buddy as his entry point into this pandemonium, gives us a child’s point of view of this confusion – one so rarely seen onscreen – and simultaneously keeps his focus on this central family and their specific emotions, in turn, making the film that much more universal. Though The Troubles may be what causes Buddy’s family’s turmoil, almost any mother, father, son, or daughter can relate to these experiences of uncertainty and unrest at a formative point in their past (or present, as the pandemic has provided plenty of problems for families over the past year), and that’s the secret to Belfast’s success – its ability to strike a chord with viewers of any background via its timeless and touching themes.
One could also claim that Branagh paints his characters with too broad of strokes, and yet, in many ways, this is another intentional act. Always labeled as an “actor’s director” – particularly due to his Shakespearean background – Branagh gives the personalities of his main players just enough excitement on the page via his sweet and snappy script to slightly set them apart from their archetypal identities (mom, dad, grandma, grandpa, etc.), and then, he allows his stars to finish suffusing them with soul, which every member of the ensemble does with electrifying efficiency. Jude Hill in particular is one hell of a find, handling both the highs and the lows of the narrative with puckish acting prowess and completely conveying the childish naïveté that is necessary for Branagh’s emotionally heightened look back at this tumult to land. It’s a lot for an inexperienced child actor to shoulder, but Hill makes it look like (pun intended) child’s play.
Equally engrossing are Buddy’s enchanting parents, perfectly portrayed by Caitríona Balfe and Jamie Dornan. Though Balfe has starred in notable titles like Super 8 and Ford v. Ferrari in the past, Belfast is easily her biggest (and best) film role to date, as she brings the magnanimous Ma to life in faultless fashion – a woman straining to hold her family together but doing so while rarely, if ever, letting her guard down, as, while her husband is away at work weekend after weekend, she has to be her sons’ “rock” during Belfast’s strife. Though Balfe is gifted two masterfully moving monologues by Branagh (her mid-movie exchange with Dornan about what Belfast has meant – and means – to her will floor audiences the world over), she’s just as stunning in the scenes where she isn’t speaking, relaying her raw resilience through only steely stares or effortful embraces – mindful mannerisms that will stick with crowds long after the credits roll. In anyone else’s hands, Ma could’ve been a stock stereotype, devoid of depth. With Balfe, she’s brimming with brilliant wit, warmth, and wonder.
It helps that Balfe has such a sensational scene partner in the form of Dornan, who matches her might in each and every dramatic beat with his balance of sobering stoicism and consuming charm. Pa may be an imperfect father – spending too much time away from his family in one of the most trying times of their lives, getting them embroiled in his money troubles, etc. – and this fuels much of his fighting with Balfe’s Ma, but perfect is not the enemy of good, and as Dornan plays him, Pa is undeniably a good man through and through, just striving to do his best like the rest of us and sometimes falling short. This makes his squabbles with Ma all the more saddening, as, while her hurt is entirely valid, we too see, via Dornan, that Pa is simply strapped, doing his damndest to make the best of an impossible situation. Thankfully, it’s not all gloom and doom for this astoundingly attractive couple though either, as the moments where their adoration for one another shines through (such as in the film’s best scene, a song-and-dance number set to The Love Affair’s “Everlasting Love,” sung by Dornan) are mightily marvelous and leave filmgoers floating in their seats with glee, demonstrating that, no matter what they endure, they are with one another until the very end.
Hinds and Dench are expectedly excellent in smaller – but no less significant – parts, with the former adding much amusement to the proceedings and the latter wrapping up this blast to the past with perceptive poignancy and assuring that no one will leave with a dry eye. Haris Zambarloukos’ beaming black-and-white cinematography is also of note, enveloping the film in a classical aura that feels truly transporting. Branagh’s deft direction likewise leans into this tone, particularly as a few of his childhood memories – which he so reverentially recreates – feel purposefully exaggerated, captured just as a child would remember them, which works to further place us in his – and Buddy’s – perspective and infuse the fable with an even greater sense of innocence.
Belfast is a simple story, but one so touchingly told that it’s near impossible to avoid its allure. At its core, it is cinema at its most magical and moving – a compassionate ode to childhood full of passionate performances from an exceptional ensemble cast for the ages (with the stellar Caitríona Balfe and Jamie Dornan serving as our standouts). We go to the theater to have our souls stirred and our spirits lifted, enthralled by epic tales of good vs. evil with ample heart, humor, and humanity fit into the very fiber of these films. Belfast may seem small in scale or scope, but it fits the definition of this cinematic expectation better than nearly all other films that have – or will – release this year, and as such, it’s an essential viewing experience in 2021 and beyond.
Belfast was released in US theaters on November 12, 2021, and in cinemas in the UK on February 25, 2022.