By Charles Kirkland Jr.
Richard Branagh presents a semi-autobiographical tale of life in the turbulent history of a small Irish city named, Belfast.
At the end of the summer of 1969, a nine-year-old Buddy (Jude Hall) has little about which to worry. He has school starting and he enjoys playing with his friends. Things drastically change when the conflict between Protestants and Catholics violently begins. With danger all around, Buddy and his family struggle to remain normal but the looming danger from all parties and angles threatens to tear them apart. Can this family survive in a world that is crashing down around them?
Written and directed by Kenneth Branagh, Belfast is a story that is based upon the actor and director’s life growing up the in Irish capital. Branagh assembles an outstanding group of actors including Hill, Jamie Dornan, Catriona Balfe, Ciaran Hinds, and Judi Dench. The marvelous part about the casting of the film is that all the lead actors in the film are Irish except for the marvelous Dame Judi Dench.
While the ensemble of actors is incredible, newcomer Jude Hill is the greatest surprise. In his debut acting experience, Hill who was recruited because of his background in Irish dancing steals the show. It is through his eyes that most of the movie is seen and through his voice and dialogue he impresses. With the marvelous talent around him, Hill holds his own and binds the movie together. It is hard to understand how someone so inexperienced could possibly pull off this role whose innocence and its loss is the focus of the film.
Speaking of incredible talent, Judi Dench’s counterpunching commentaries as Buddy’s grandmother is delightful. Even more powerful, she closes the movie with words that takes her breath away like a punch to the heart. There are many performances in the film that are incredible including the chemistry between Ma (Balfe) and Pa (Dornan), the wise and humorous Pop (Hinds), and Dornan’s singing but the spotlight shines squarely upon the work of Hill.
Shot mostly in black and white, Kenneth Branagh does a praiseworthy job of creating a film that compels the audience to clearly see the nuances in not just acting ability but themes. Branagh strips each actor bare as he focuses them tight and squarely in frames. To their credit, each actor steps up to the challenge of being incredibly vulnerable through this focus and delivers intensely emotional performances of their lines. Because of the intensely personal nature of the material, Branagh seems to have submitted one of his best works ever as a director especially in a film in which he did not star or even in Marvel’s Thor (which made Branagh slyly reminded us of in this film).
Branagh‘s movie is a glimpse into his childhood and a homage to the movies that shaped his life including The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, High Noon, and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. And if none of those films are enough, the throaty orchestral voice of Belfast native, Van Morrison delivers song after song from his long discography to drive Branagh’s love letter home. (Morrison contributes eight old songs and one brand new one to the soundtrack.)
Rated PG-13 for some violence and strong language, Belfast is an emotionally intense drama about family, growing up, loss, and love in an Irish city unlike any other. There is nothing in this film to not like. Branagh and his actors capture the essence of what it means to be Irish. There is joy and at the same time pain. There is love accompanied by hate. There is laughter where there should be tears. It is a deeply personal tale for which Kenneth Branagh should be proud. It is also a definite gauntlet thrown down for award consideration.
Belfast is in theaters.