Written and Directed by Kenneth Branagh
Starring Jude Hill, Caitríona Balfe, Jamie Dornan, Ciarán Hinds Hinds, & Judy Dench
“Ireland, Scotland, Brittany and Wales
I can hear the ancient voices calling
Children, children, children
Listen Jimmy, I want to go home… I’ve been away from the Ray too long”
Cinematically remembering his time growing up in Belfast, North Ireland (until his family moved to England) filmmaker Kenneth Branagh explores pivotal moments in the formative years of his young life through the wide eyes of the main character (and young Branagh alter ego), Buddy.
It is too easy to say this is Branagh’s best film in years (although it is). The director has spent the last 14 years doing subpar “director-for-hire” Hollywood films. 2018’s “All is True” was a small return to form but was still not as strong as the director’s best work, seen in such great films as 1989’s “Henry V”, 1991’s “Dead Again”, 1992’s “Peter’s Friends”, and especially 1993’s Much Ado About Nothing” and 1996’s jaw-dropping excellence, “Hamlet”.
“Belfast” sees a return to worthy material for the filmmaker, made more special by how personal the story is to him. This one comes from Branagh’s heart.
At age 9, Kenneth Branagh’s family moved from Belfast to England. His parents wanted to keep their family far from the growing conflict in Northern Ireland between Protestants (they wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom) and the Catholics (who wished for their beloved land to become part of the Republic of Ireland).
Such is Buddy’s story.
Set in 1969, Buddy (a wonderful Jude Hill) is a wide-eyed nine-year-old Protestant boy living in a predominantly Catholic neighborhood The Troubles, as they were called, are always ever present (on the television, in the streets, and eventually at their front door). Buddy understands that things are dangerous but is too young to fully grasp why.
His Da (Jamie Dornan) works in England and is gone for weeks, leaving Buddy and his brother to be reared by their mother (Caitríona Balfe, in the performance of the film). His live-in grandparents (Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds) also play a part in his upbringing, as does his cousin Frances (Freya Yates).
Buddy seems to have a full life for a kid living amongst a world doesn’t exist past the barricades that protect his neighborhood from the escalating violence. He is smiling often and is almost always playing with a youthful vigor. As the dangers find themselves inside the barricades, Buddy’s eyes are opened even wider to the harsh realities of what is happening in the title city.
Cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos’s beautifully naturalistic monochrome imagery works perfectly and when Branagh decides to give little splashes of color to highlight important memories, it gives weight to the nostalgia and brings alive the memories that inspired Branagh as an artist.
It is in the film’s design where “Belfast” finds its biggest triumphs. As did Fellini in “Amarcord” and Cuaron in “Roma”, Branagh gives his film an artful design. Each shot is constructed with extreme purpose and Branagh uses every inch of his frame, giving scenes angles that allow the viewer to become immersed in the emotion of the moment while paying close attention to unrest that is happening outside.
As screenwriter, Branagh does not fare as well. The characters are well-enough defined and any lack of true depth on the father can be somewhat forgiven, as we are meant to see him through Buddy’s eyes. While dad is gone for so much of Buddy’s days, the screenplay conveniently placed him back home at every important moment. A childlike memory to be sure, but there is no reality to the crafting of the father.
As Buddy’s Da, Jamie Dornan finally finds himself in a good film. I have seen most of the actor’s filmography and it does him no favors. He is one of the rare actors who has never been in anything worthwhile, ergo, I have never liked him as an actor. “Belfast” gifts Dornan a role in a good film that allows him to show that he does, in fact, possess a little talent. The performance is nowhere near as strong as the work from the rest of the cast (It is rather one-note due to the limits put upon the character and perhaps the actor’s limited talents) but Dornan does well enough in his underwritten role.
Another major stumbling block is in the unnecessary local goon Billy Clanton (Colin Morgan) who uses scare tactics and violence to persuade the Protestants to join the movement to oust all Catholics from the neighborhood. Clanton is pure cliche and a final confrontation with Buddy’s father in the streets during a riot is completely phony, as is the ridiculous way it comes to an end. The entire moment trivializes all that is happening and the use of Frankie Lane’s “Do Not Forsake Me” from the film “High Noon” is absurd.
There is a scene towards the end of the film that comes out of left field and rocks the narrative boat. Buddy’s family and friends are gathered (I cannot tell you why, as it is a spoiler) at a restaurant. With no set up or warning, Buddy’s dad and Uncle and cousins do an impromptu lip sync of the late Sixties hit “Everlasting Love” from the band Love Affair. The scene’s heart is in the right place but in the scheme of things the moment is much too abrupt and feels shoved in, failing to achieve the heartstring tug that Branagh was going for.
Issues aside, much of the film works. The natural sweetness of Buddy’s crush on the smartest girl in school had me smiling and their final moment is underplayed and quite touching.
Dench and Hinds do marvelous work as Buddy’s grandparents. While Dame Judi Dench has settled into giving the same (yet always great) performance over the past decade, she has something deeper to work with here and has a moment in the film’s finale that will move you. Ciarán Hinds has always been a fantastic character actor and his work as the grandfather is beautifully drawn.
If the Academy is paying any attention, Caitríona Balfe is nomination bound. The actress’s performance and character hold the film together. Buddy’s mother is forced to be a strong woman, as she tries to raise her boys amongst The Troubles, doing her best to keep them safe from the violence. Balfe’s work is commanding and dignified and sweet.
To use the music of Van Morrison throughout is a perfect choice, if an obvious one. The songs chosen are the right fit for the mood Branagh was going for. Morrison is a lyrical poet who often composed songs about his love for his homeland of Ireland. That the chosen songs are not always “of the time”, matters not. Each one is inserted perfectly and blend proper into the film’s ambience.
If it is the oversimplification that impairs the narrative, it certainly doesn’t hurt the overall sweetness of the film.
When a director reaches into their past and makes a personal piece (the best examples being John Boorman’s “Hope and Glory” and the aforementioned films from Fellini and Alfonso Cuaron) it can be something special.
Kenneth Branagh’s “Belfast” is indeed something special, but too often bows to the saccharine. Not enough to earn the film a negative review, but just enough to dampen (save for a few scenes) the emotional weight of the tale.
PG-13, 98 Minutes, Focus Features