Belfast Review – IGN
This is an advanced review of the London Film Festival. Belfast opens in the United States on November 12 and in the United Kingdom on February 25, 2022.
After plundering Shakespeare, Disney, Marvel and most recently Agatha Christie for material, director Kenneth Branagh moves closer to home for the new film Belfast, making a film about his childhood in Northern Ireland, which was set amid the violence sectarian was tearing the region apart. The result is Branagh’s most personal film to date, and one of his best.
Belfast begins in the present, the sun shines as Van Morrison sings, and we are presented with a whirlwind tour of the capital of Northern Ireland. The only sign of trouble / The Troubles is a mural featuring masked men, which the camera hovers over as the color turns black and white, and we are transported to a downtown street on August 15, 1969.
Children laugh and kick a ball, or fight with makeshift swords and shields, the images portray an idyllic vision of childhood. But an explosion of mortars and firebombs shatters that spell, as a violent crowd takes to the streets and orders all Catholics to leave what they have considered a Protestant neighborhood, the authors adding “if you speak to the police, we’ll be back for you too. “
Confusion and chaos reign briefly, then in a flash everything changes. Barricades rise, tanks and armed soldiers patrol the streets, and freedom is suddenly a thing of the past. It’s a surprising opening sequence and one that sets an ominous tone to what will follow.
Yet as this tension simmers beneath the surface throughout the proceedings, much of Belfast is much sweeter, being a coming-of-age tale very much based on Branagh’s youth. His celluloid substitute is Buddy – played with a combination of mischief and intelligence by newcomer Jude Hill – a normal 9-year-old who enjoys family, football and the movies. And we see this changing world through his eyes, metaphorically and sometimes literally, as Branagh frequently places his camera at a child’s eye level, to truly put us in Buddy’s shoes.
The youngster tries to understand what is happening by listening to his Daddy (50 shades of Gray‘s Jamie Dornan) and Ma (Foreigner‘s Caitriona Balfe), but they don’t have the answers. Pa’s construction work takes him away from the family for weeks, and when he’s home, Dad finds himself torn between doing what he thinks is right and protecting his family from the horrors that surround them now. Meanwhile, Ma struggles to make ends meet, drowns in debt, hides from the tenant, and feels like raising her children on her own.
It is through their plight that Branagh tackles the political, religious and financial hardships facing both his own family and the households they lived with. There are times when these scenes slip into melodrama, especially when money becomes the subject of their arguments. But the writer-director also uses sentiment as a weapon, especially during the Buddy scenes with grandparents Pop (Ciaran Hinds) and Granny (Judi Dench).
These are the quietest moments in the film, with the kid asking for help with his math homework or advice on impressing the girl he’s falling for. And Grandparents are beautifully played by the actors, with Hinds delivering life lessons and handcrafted wisdom with real warmth and charm. But this is also where Branagh expresses his frustration at the worsening situation. âThere is only one answer,â Buddy says in the middle of the film. âIf that were true,â Pop replies, âpeople wouldn’t be blowing themselves up all over town.â
Besides the object of his affections, Buddy’s other obsession is cinema, inspiring some of the film’s most autobiographical scenes. A trip to see Raquel Welch in One Million Years BC clearly helps the boy through puberty, while Chitty Chitty Bang Bang fires his imagination, the film’s color crossing Belfast’s black and white palette. A festive visit to the theater is a preview of things to come, while Buddy’s beloved Thor comic is a devious nod to Branagh’s MCU future.
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TV also helps him navigate life, but not dark news shows about ‘the explosive situation in Northern Ireland’, which Buddy ignores in favor of playing with toy cars. Rather, it’s the westerns he watches to learn something about the ways of the world, including The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and High Noon, though the latter foreshadows the film’s climax in brutal ways.
This finale takes the family to a potentially violent crossroads, but beyond condemnation of the bullying campaign that has engulfed the city – represented by Colin Morgan’s terrifying Billy Clanton demanding “money or a pledge” for the cause – Belfast avoids taking sides and works hard to remain impartial. So when Catholicism is said to be the religion of fear, Branagh follows this proclamation with a Protestant priest delivering a sermon pure of fire and brimstone. Her words terrify poor Buddy, but also inspire one of the funniest moments in the movie.
It’s those episodic slices of life that really uplift Belfast. From dancing in the streets and cooking an ‘Ulster Fry’ to playing Subbuteo and opening presents on Christmas morning, these are glimpses of memories that Branagh clearly cherishes, beautifully photographed by the director of the longtime photograph by filmmaker Haris Zambarloukos.
Its inspired use of focus, wide shots and depth of field bring every memory to life in a spellbinding way. Meanwhile, Van Morrison’s music – including hits like Warm Love, Jackie Wilson Said, Days Like These, and Dark Side of the Street – captures the mood, underscores Buddy’s optimism, and successfully marries the words of Branagh with the visuals of Zambarloukos.