Before I even pressed ‘play’, I knew BELFAST was very likely to be a personal film favorite for the year. In addition to my love of coming-of-age narratives, I have a particular affinity for stories that are intentionally limited in scope. Since BELFAST tells a story set in a short period of time, staged primarily
Before I even pressed ‘play’, I knew BELFAST was very likely to be a personal film favorite for the year. In addition to my love of coming-of-age narratives, I have a particular affinity for stories that are intentionally limited in scope. Since BELFAST tells a story set in a short period of time, staged primarily in a small neighborhood with a handful of brilliantly effervescent characters, it was already a winner for me. The viewing experience was as lovely as I expected it to be and I’m not surprised it’s earned a spot as a Best Picture contender.
BELFAST is a rare foray into personal territory for writer/director Kenneth Branagh and a long way from the Shakespeare and Agatha Christie films that most often come to mind when people think of him. Heavily inspired by his own childhood experience of the social and political upheaval in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s, the movie is an intimate human portrait of an insular time and place. One curious criticism has been echoed across reviews. Despite (or perhaps, because of) the personal nature of the story, there is an emotional restraint to the film which some reviewers experienced as making the movie feel muted, guarded, or at a distance. However, BELFAST has clearly charmed audiences, collecting an impressive amount of awards.
Told primarily through the point-of-view of a young boy, BELFAST chronicles the eponymous city’s unrest of 1969 and its effects on his working-class family and neighborhood. Buddy, played winsomely by newcomer Jude Hill, navigates friendships, young love, and growing up against the backdrop of a cultural civil war. His tight-knit family features his parents (Caitriona Balfe and Jamie Dornan), grandparents (Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds), and brother, Will (Lewis McAskie), who bring incredible warmth to every scene they’re in. There is an adorable sub-plot about a girl that Buddy likes at school and his attempts to gain her attention. And, as the Troubles worsen, the question lingers, should the family stay or seek safety elsewhere?
With the exception of modern-day footage bookends, the film is beautifully shot in black-and-white with occasional bursts of color (like when the characters go to a movie theater or performance) and replete with strong cinematic choices. As I confessed earlier, I love how the story is limited to Buddy’s neighborhood and what would realistically be his whole world. This was at least partially due to Covid-19 restrictions which pushed the film to shoot on specially constructed sets but I personally felt that it helped keep the story in Buddy’s POV. If I had one critique it would be that I wish the film had committed even more to Buddy’s perspective. I was very engaged with strong storytelling moments that utilized his childlike understanding whether he was listening to the imposing church minister or observing his mom mutter to herself as she reads an official-looking letter. I loved seeing and hearing things the way Buddy does: around corners, across rooms, in pieces, and hushed voices. As a result, I felt pulled out of the story during the few scenes that were unconnected to his presence. Overall, there is a fluid and poetic juxtaposition of mundane life with the growing turmoil, interwoven with joy and resilience.
Tender, intimate, and gorgeously captured, BELFAST reflects a time of incendiary cultural division not so long ago or far away. It’s Best Picture material in my book, but we’ll have to see about the Academy.
Click To Watch BELFAST HERE