Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast mixes touching themes of family and homestead with historic tragedy to make one of the most heartwarming films of the year.
A semi-autobiographical take on Branagh’s upbringing in Northern Ireland during The Troubles, Belfast immediately grips you with how quickly the warmth of its residents turns fearful. Before, friendly greetings could be heard throughout the city and children could play together with very little worry. However, everything changes as the riots and conflict cause the military to intervene, turning the calm environment into a fearful and paranoid war zone.
With the first shot of riots and explosions filling the streets, you immediately feel the entire atmosphere change and Haris Zambarloukos’ black and white cinematography captures Belfast before and during The Troubles very well. The sense of innocence and wholesomeness that black and white offers as the family attempts to keep positive amongst the dark times is equally represented visually. The fleeting moments of escapism the film’s working-class family have visually stand out being in colour – adding a visual pop to the lighthearted moments that emphasise the best solace anyone can find in Belfast during this time. Visually, Branagh and Zambarloukos also add some subtle emotional depth to The Troubles that isn’t always necessarily brought out in the story.
While the impact of The Troubles certainly leaves it mark in how the quiet streets turn into chaos, it doesn’t feel like the film really delves enough into its historic tragedy. Any time Billy Clanton (Colin Morgan), a prominent face in the Protestant side shows his face, you certainly feel a lump in your throat and most of the story being told from the perspective of the young, energetic Buddy (Jude Hill) adds deep emotional stakes to his home being torn apart – but there isn’t enough to feel like you’re getting the full scope of what’s happening. The mere mention about kids being killed in the streets and people being ripped from their homes has very little action behind it and the true impact of this ethnic cleansing gets lost within the “feel good” family plot that really overtakes the film.
So maybe Branagh doesn’t showcase this historic tragedy to its fullest extent, but Belfast isn’t a biopic about The Troubles. Rather, it’s more of a hopeful slice of life story about a working-class family trying to figure out their future in rapidly changing times. The film’s central family isn’t necessarily the target of these crusades, since they too are Protestant, but they find themselves stuck in the middle as constant pressures from Billy have made them equally targeted and put the future of their safety in jeopardy. Thus, as their beloved neighborhood begins to be torn asunder, debates about whether they should leave Belfast come up and cause great reflection of what this town means to them.
Although the big decisions come from Ma (Caitriona Balfe) and Pa (Jamie Dorian), the children play an important factor in defining Belfast as their home. With the adorable and heartfelt Buddy, the family’s youngest son, really driving the film, it’s hard not to sympathise with Ma’s desire to stay. Buddy’s general enthusiasm for life, charming ways of getting into trouble, and adorable aspirations to get close to a first love really evoke his sense of childhood innocence that you can’t help but want to see preserved. His loveable personality certainly stems from his upbringing in Belfast as much as from Jude Hill’s amazing breakout performance, but regardless, Buddy’s time seen in Belfast is a perfect encapsulation of the town and something that Ma and Pa are understandably afraid to lose.
Dornan’s performance is easily one of his best as he brings a realistic approach to his views of keeping his family safe while still maintaining a sense of hope and heart when it comes to being a father. Though Balfe is definitely the standout as you can feel her holding everything together from the very start with how she makes Ma’s loving feelings for Belfast and her family seem incredibly genuine. The additions of Granny (Judi Dench) and Pop (Ciaran Hinds) add different generational perspectives that help Buddy see the world differently and offer new layers of heart to the entire experience through performances from Dench and particularly good turn from Hinds.
Belfast proves that home is where the heart is and even through its tough times, Branagh manages to achieve a sense of personal fulfilment through his cast’s performance as strong family that will make your heart swell with love and your eyes fill with tears of joy.