Kenneth Branagh usually goes big or goes home. Working across a variety of genres that range from Shakespearean adaptation to Marvel hero flick, the guy loves his costumes and big personality. It’s strange that he now makes his most personal (and semi-autobiographical) film to date with such a soft touch. Belfast remains with me twelve hours later in ways I had not expected.
While it’s a beautiful exploration of a difficult situation through the eyes of a child, the adult viewers are going to be left wanting. The film is set in Ireland’s tumultuous 1969, the year of The Troubles, but its decision to faithfully view this alongside a boy named Buddy (Jude Hill) means a lot of things we overhear go unexplained. An unnamed Ma (Caitríona Balfe) and Pa (Jamie Dornan) are constantly bickering about tax bills, about raising their children together while Pa is mostly absent for work, and about leaving Belfast forever. The last point is a blatantly inevitable affair, but we’re meant to see this through the panicked eyes of Buddy. This leaves a lot of gaps for the audience, but it’s all worth it to follow this charming child through his experiences. He makes an effort to move up in class so he can sit next to young Catherine (Olive Tennant), the girl he has a crush on. Advice is received from his cheeky, hilarious, and deeply loving grandfather (Ciarán Hinds) and grandmother (Judi Dench). His life feels joyful and happy, but cracks begin to show as gangs appear in his life and fires begin to burn.
Branagh is telling a tale of his own youth and he makes damn sure you know it throughout the film. Focusing on anecdotes and scenes that feel lifted from childhood memories is pretty direct, but he makes sure you see the kid sitting on the sidewalk reading a Thor comic just in case it didn’t land. This dedication to viewing this even through a childlike sense of wonder is bold and it works, but it also removes most context from the narrative. This becomes a feature rather than a bug, but the issue is going to crop up for viewers that aren’t able to let go and embrace that childhood sense of delight.
Can I take a moment to state how wonderful and comedically talented Jamie Dornan is? I think I owe him that. I think everyone that trashed him after Fifty Shades of Grey owes him that. The guy delivered two other absolutely wonderful performances this year (Synchronic, Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar) and I’ve grown to love himwhen he’s given the chance to bring levity to darker moments. He’s a complicated figure after becoming masturbatory material for readers and viewers worldwide as the deeply toxic Christian Grey (which he played into for Barb & Star), but Branagh has found depth and dignity in the man that I never gave him credit for. Caitríona Balfe shoulders most of the dramatic weight, but Dornan, Hinds, and Dench very much create a life of joy and humor despite all the darkness encroaching around them.
Belfast is sweet, loving, deeply upsetting, and in places a transcendent look at the world from a child’s perspective. It traverses the terrain between religious terrorism in the streets to an elated viewing of Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang, serving delights and frights alongside beautifully sentimental wisdom. I loved it, and I hope you all do as well.
Belfast is currently in theatres.