Belfast (2021)

17 Nov

Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Belfast” is acclaimed writer-director Kenneth Branagh’s deeply personal tale based somewhat on his young childhood in Belfast, Northern Ireland before he and his family emigrated to England when he was 9 years old. And with its black-and-white cinematography on top of the autobiographical aspect, many (MANY) reviewers have made their comparisons to Alfonso Cuaron’s equally personal and masterful “Roma.”

BTW, stop. OK? Just…stop. That was “Roma,” this is “Belfast.” Let’s move on, shall we?

Oh, and other critics have pointed out how the specific use of color to blend with the mostly-B&W visuals is more obvious than necessary. I say, so what? It’s effective either way.

Well, yeah, it is clear that the reason visual mediums such as the silver screen, the TV screen, and the theater stage display their art in color to our 9-year-old protagonist beholding them is to give him an escape from the black-and-white bleak troublesome world he has to live in. But come on. It’s still effective.

The whole film is effective and wonderfully crafted, paying tribute to those in Belfast who, in the late 1960s, either had to stay or leave (or be sadly lost) when a violent war practically destroys their peaceful neighborhoods. And it does so from the point of view of a child, which keeps us on ground level when going through this world. It also makes the “colorful” (forgive the pun) moments, such as when the boy and his family delight in seeing the movie “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” in a cinema, all the more precious–while, at the same time, it also makes the scarier, more violent moments a little more romanticized.

Buddy (Jude Hill, adorable throughout) is our little guide through a working-class neighborhood in 1969 Belfast. As the movie opens, he’s enjoying playing a game on his block when suddenly, a violent mob of anti-nationalist Protestants arrive and set fire to the Catholic houses they come across. (We don’t get a lot of detail regarding the history of this civil war–Branagh is careful enough to give us just what we need to know. Even those who aren’t familiar can tell that this isn’t about religion; more so, it’s about nation.)

With all going on outside, there’s also personal issues occurring inside, as Buddy’s family has to consider the future now more than ever. Buddy’s Pa (Jamie Dornan) works as a laborer in England and is often away for business, while Ma (Caitriona Balfe) has to care for Buddy and his older brother and also deal with Pa’s dealings that keep leaving the family in heavier debt. When Pa has the idea to uproot the family to Sydney or England, she argues that they barely even afford to stay here.

Ma also argues that everything she knows is right here in Belfast–that includes Ma’s parents (the wonderful pairing of Ciaran Hinds and Judi Dench), with whom Buddy is often spending time. These two people are delightful to watch. They bicker and make jokes at each other’s expense, but you can feel the love they share for each other and they’re also wonderful grandparents to little Buddy. (Grandpa even helps Buddy with his math homework–Buddy doesn’t want to merely do well in school; he wants to get to know a smart classmate, Catherine (Olive Tennant), on whom he has a crush.)

There’s so much for Kenneth Branagh to pack into his sentimental nostalgic trip that it’s amazing he’s able to succeed in giving us a satisfying film that only runs about an hour and 37 minutes (usually filmmakers think they need an extra hour, so this was a pleasant surprise). When the time comes for Buddy’s family to truly consider where they’re supposed to be at this point in life (do they wait out the war or do they move far away), it’s not hard to feel for them and hope they find some happiness while surviving together. The cinematography from Haris Zambarloukos is outstanding, the acting is nomination-worthy, and the writing and directing from the already-skilled Kenneth Branagh show me that he doesn’t need Shakespeare or great visual technique to warm my heart. “Belfast” is a great film.

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