Director: Kenneth Branagh
Cast: Jude Hill, Caitríona Balfe, Jamie Dornan, Ciarán Hinds, Judi Dench
Released: 21 January
Arriving off the back of scooping the People’s Choice Award at TIFF which is a strong bellwether for leading Oscar pic contenders (Nomadland won it in 2020) comes Branagh’s love letter to his hometown.
Belfast tells the tale of a protestant family caught up in the escalation of violence, whilst living in a Catholic stronghold, during the early days of the Troubles in 1969. All of this is filtered through the child eyes of Buddy (Jude Hill) and evocatively filmed in black and white. It’s a Roma meets JoJo Rabbit without the emotional heft and grandeur of the former or the edge of the later. That said, Belfast oozes sentimental charm and endears throughout.
It’s a tale of love and loyalty as the pressures of work and religion come to bear on the central couple (Dornan and Balfe) who are trying to raise their two boys amid civil strife. Escapism comes in the form of a love of movies (One Million Years B.C., Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) shown in the picture house and appearing in technicolour, Marchbox cars and a school crush for Buddy. There’s also the sage support of grandparents (Dench and Hinds) whose ‘can’t live with you, can’t live with out you’ type of love is beautifully observed and may well, deservedly, bag both of them Oscar nominations. Dench, in particular, summons all her acting prowess in the same way that Anthony Hopkins did in The Father.
However, Belfast never quite elevates itself to classic cinematic status which it clearly aspires to – Balfe excels, Dornan wrestles between looks and range. There’s a try-hard scene towards the end which feels misplaced or a misfire as it attempts a cinematic grandeur but forgetting to bathe it in colour to indicate so. And whilst Van Morrison’s music is as quintessential to Belfast as the Lagan, it’s hard not to have his great cannon be somewhat sullied at the moment by his anti-vaxx stance, which is also leading to unnecessary death and grief.
Still, as a love letter Belfast is sealed with a gentle kiss by Branagh and is likely to be warmly embraced.
Words: Michael McDermott