‘Belfast’: Film Review | Telluride 2021

Writer-director Kenneth Branagh looks back to his childhood in Northern Ireland during a period of intense religious and political conflict.

With Belfast, Kenneth Branagh shifts gears rewardingly from his Agatha Christie adaptations to a far more personal film about his childhood in Northern Ireland. Set in 1969 during the height of the conflicts between Protestants and Catholics, the feature mainly steers clear of politics to focus on family drama instead. I would guess that Branagh drew inspiration from John Boorman’s masterful 1987 film about his childhood during World War II, Hope and Glory. That is a high bar to match, and Branagh doesn’t quite reach it, but he brings off moments of humor and pathos that leave a lasting impact.

Filmed in black-and-white with a few bursts of color (more about that in a moment), the picture opens with a quiet domestic tableau that suddenly explodes in violence. Our protagonist, 9-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill), tries to fathom what is happening to disrupt his life. As far as he knows, his Protestant family has always lived side by side with Catholic neighbors, but this August morning forces him to see the world in a different way. The core family unit consists of Buddy, his older brother (Lewis McAskie), his mother (Caitriona Balfe) and his father (Jamie Dornan), who travels frequently to England for construction work. His grandmother and grandfather, superbly played by Judi Dench and Ciaran Hinds, also live nearby.


The Bottom Line

A poignant journey back to a childhood charged with trauma.

Venue: Telluride Film Festival

Release date: Friday, Nov. 12

Cast: Jamie Dornan, Caitriona Balfe, Jude Hill, Judi Dench, Ciaran Hinds

Director-screenwriter: Kenneth Branagh

1 hour 37 minutes

Most of the story is told through Buddy’s eyes, and young Hill is a marvelous camera subject. Unfortunately, he also speaks in a thick Irish brogue that is not always easy for American ears to comprehend. Some of the other actors are equally difficult to understand. This is a movie that definitely would benefit from subtitles. Fortunately, though, its emotional core is always lucid: Dornan’s character wants to move his family out of Northern Ireland for their safety, but their loving ties in the community make this an extremely difficult decision.

A larger problem in the film is that it simply does not provide enough background on the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Some viewers may remember the history, but others probably need a bit of a refresher course. Branagh uses a few TV news excerpts to try to fill in the background, but they’re insufficient. Within the Protestant community, there seem to be different factions — some that advocate violence and disruption and others, like the main characters, who are hoping to retain a more placid existence.

Despite these flaws, the main characters are so well drawn and beautifully played that we cannot help getting caught up in their daily struggles as well as the larger decision they face about whether to abandon their home for the uncertain prospect of new horizons. Moving will mean leaving the grandparents behind, and we feel their bond with the elder couple so intensely that the pathos intensifies. Scenes between Dench and Hinds are among the most beautiful portrayals of a long-term marriage depicted onscreen. In one scene Hinds persuades his wife to dance with him, and the moment is enchanting. We also get a palpable sense of young Buddy’s attachment to his grandparents, who offer him life lessons that he never quite receives from his parents.

The period is eloquently evoked by Branagh, cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos and production designer Jim Clay. The flashes of color in this black-and-white universe arrive when the family visits the local movie theater, first to see Raquel Welch wrestle with mastodons in One Million Years B.C., and later to be enraptured by the flying car in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Even Dench’s character is drawn out of her seat when she watches Dick Van Dyke and family soar. The period score, mainly provided by Irish singer-songwriter Van Morrison, also helps to transport us back in time. I could have done without the repeated use of the Dimitri Tiomkin theme from High Noon (playing on television) to draw a dubious parallel to the showdown on the streets of Belfast.

Branagh’s most personal film is imperfect, but the emotion that it builds in the final section, as the family plays out a wrenching universal drama of emigration, is searing. Moments when Buddy must say farewell to his childhood girlfriend and to the grandmother whom he may never see again tear at the heart and linger in the memory.

Full credits

Venue: Telluride Film Festival
Distributor: Focus Features
Production companies: Northern Ireland Screen, TKBC
Cast: Jamie Dornan, Caitriona Balfe, Jude Hill, Judi Dench, Ciaran Hinds, Lewis McAskie, Lara McDonnell, Colin Morgan
Director-screenwriter: Kenneth Branagh
Producers: Laura Berwick, Kenneth Branagh, Becca Kovacik, Tamar Thomas
Director of photography: Haris Zambarloukos
Production designer: Jim Clay
Costume designer: Charlotte Walter
Editor: Una Ni Dhonghaile
Music: Van Morrison
Casting: Lucy Bevan, Emily Brockman

1 hour 37 minutes