'Belfast': A Heartfelt, Yet Restrained, Feel-Good Movie
Updated: Jan 23
With its black and white photography, semi-autobiographical nature, and the fact that it's a passion project for it's writer/director, you would be forgiven if you thought that Belfast was going to be Kenneth Branagh trying to do his own version of Alfonso Cuaron's Roma. But if you ask me, those three details are the only striking similarities between the two. While Branagh may be going for something akin to Roma, this film ends up being much more similar to something like Billy Elliot, and it serves as a brisk, sentimental ode to Branagh's upbringing in Northern Ireland during the late 60s.
This film details the lives of a working class family during The Troubles in Northern Ireland. We see the film largely from the perspective of Buddy, a 9 year old, as he grows up amidst the unrest in Belfast. This film is a bit loose in terms of plot, but it gives it a slice of life feel that encompasses life in a tumultuous time so well. It's no surprise that the events of the film largely mirror Branagh's own childhood, as it feels so authentic, and so personal. This is easily his most personal film to date, and you can feel this all throughout the film. It's as if he is taking us back in time to see what it was like for him and his family during this tough time. It's clear that Branagh wants the audience to experience the hardships like he did as a kid, and while not every emotional beat has the full impact he is going for, there are several moments that I found rather touching, and the film as a whole is rather charming and warm.
Going into this, I was worried that it might end up being the type of schmaltzy, Oscar-baity film that I typically don't like all that much. But I was pleasantly surprised by how much I liked this film, and even though it does lean towards that overly sentimental territory at times, I found the film's sweeter moments to be some of its strongest. As a director, Kenneth Branagh has never really stood out to me too much. The only exceptions might be some of his Shakespeare adaptations, but he doesn't make much of an impression otherwise. With this film, it feels like he is taking some risks, and making more of an effort stylistically. The black and white aesthetic is a clear example of this, but the film also makes great use of camera movement and framing, and the loose narrative all contribute to this. The film also makes a very specific choice that I won't spoil here, but what I will say is watch for any of the scenes where Buddy is in a theater because they are some of my favorite moments of the film.
Even though Branagh is making a big step forward as a filmmaker, it still feels like he's holding back a little. As a performer, he is no stranger to going for broke, and I kind of wish that his tendency to make bold choices was reflected more in his directorial work. We see glimmers of this all throughout, but even some of the moments where he is taking risks don't fully hit as hard as they could. His restraint does pay off in terms of the film's emotional moments, as it keeps them from feeling too cloying, but even still, they don't always have as large of an impact as Branagh is going for. He gets awfully close at times, but it feels like he needs just a little more of a push to really allow the film to be something more than what we get here.
Thankfully, the film has a great cast that makes up for its shortcomings. Caitriona Balfe is especially incredible here, and gives one of her best performances to date as Buddy's Mom. She is given some of the film's weightier moments, and carries herself with a sense of elegance that feels in line with how Branagh saw his actual mother when he was a child. Jamie Dornan is also fairly good as Buddy's Dad, and is rather charming throughout the film. The film also features legendary actors Judi Dench and Ciaran Hinds as Buddy's Grandparents, and both are fantastic as always. Hinds impressed me in particular, as he brings so much warmth to the character and is simply a delight to watch. Newcomer Jude Hill gives a solid debut performance as Buddy, and he plays off of his more established co-stars quite nicely. He is the heart of the film, and he takes on that role rather well.
This film is currently a frontrunner for Best Picture, and its not hard to see why. It's the type of film that is sure to resonate with a lot of people, and the type of film that Academy voters eat up. It seems like a lock for a Best Picture nomination, and will likely get nominated in other categories too. While it wouldn't be my pick for Best Picture, I wouldn't be too upset if it gets nominated. It's just such a warm, heartfelt film that I can't help but like. It's sweet without being overly saccharine, and manages to be one of Kenneth Branagh's better directorial efforts. It's not perfect, and it feels a bit lacking in some areas, but Branagh's passion shines through to make this a touching and endearing examination of youth and family that is sure to be a crowdpleaser.