Though it plays it safe with the subject matter, Belfast is a beautifully shot and authentically uplifting movie that explores how important the things and people you love can be during a time of crisis.
Written by Becca Johnson
Directed by Kenneth Branagh, Belfast tells the story of a nine year old boy called Buddy who is growing up in Northern Ireland during 'the Troubles'. His stable and loving community is changed forever as Buddy learns to chart a path towards adulthood, and his family struggle over whether to leave everything they love behind or wait for the conflict to pass.
Branagh is often considered hit or miss when it comes to his film-making, yet Belfast is a triumph and perhaps his best to date. He had a clear vision, his passion running through each and every scene, making for a heartfelt and naturalistic watch. When exploring the Troubles, Branagh definitely plays things safe and doesn't opt for a violent or heartbreaking approach, yet this works well as the movie is focusing on nine year old Buddy's experiences. It combines coming-of age with one of the scariest events in modern history, to create a family friendly drama that sheds light on the event without becoming emotionally overbearing.
Belfast boasts a cast of stars, with Jamie Dornan (Fifty Shades of Grey) and Caitriona Balfe (Ford v Ferrari) in the lead roles as Ma and Pa. Their relationship is rocky, with Pa working away putting a strain of their relationship, and Ma trying her best to bring up her sons well during such a difficult time. We also see Judi Dench (Skyfall) and Ciaran Hinds (There Will Be Blood) as Granny and Pop, who are a great support system to Buddy and the main reason he wishes to stay in Ireland. Their family dynamic is both interesting and believable, with all performances impressing. However, it's young Jude Hill who really shines in his role as Buddy. He is equal parts naïve and confident, his boyish charm adding a level of humour and heart to the script. He is easily lead yet clearly knows right from wrong, and its intriguing to see him navigating which path to take.
The cinematography on show in Belfast is stunning, with the black and white approach working a treat. Cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos has taken care with both lighting and framing, the portrait shots making it feel even more personal and simply enchanting. The black and white cinematography may not be essential to telling this story, yet it seems to match the tone of the movie well. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the soundtrack. It's great to see Van Morrison create a Northern Irish score to accompany the movie, and the tracks are undoubtedly good, yet the songs often feel out of place and do not match the scenes that they're paired with.
Where the movie falters is within its script; it often feels like Branagh has little to say. Some will appreciate the balance of violence with nostalgic family drama, whereas others may believe his commentary falls flat. Wherever you fall, Belfast is successful in showing how pop culture and the arts can help shape your childhood, as well as pull you through tough times. Buddy enjoys visiting the cinema and theatre with his family, and we even have a nod to the Thor comic books, highlighting Branagh's directorial addition to the MCU. It also looks into the importance of family, and how love and support can defeat all else, no matter what is happening around you.
Belfast is bound to underwhelm a large percentage of its audience, as the social commentary gets left behind and Branagh adds very little to the overall conversation about the violence between Protestants and Catholics. However, the movie placing Buddy's perspective at the forefront puts the events into a new light, and though it may not shock or tear-jerk, it remains unbiased and non-manipulative whilst highlighting a love for cinema, friends and family. It is shot and acted beautifully, perhaps pushing it into Oscar territory.