It comes as no surprise that NOW was the right time for 60-year-old actor/director Kenneth Branagh to bring us "Belfast." It's an auto-biographical story of Branagh's own childhood, growing up in Belfast, Ireland, and set against the backdrop of the violent 1969 Northern Ireland Riots between Protestants and Catholics.
Told through the eyes of a young Buddy (the wonderful, bright 9-year-old newcomer, Jude Hill) that is meant to represent Branagh at that age, "Belfast" finds optimism, love, humanity and their importance despite the horrendous things going on in the world around this young lad. Developed during the pandemic, Branagh remembers another time from his youth where he and his family were essentially "quarantined" on their own street in Belfast, where a community is given no other choice but to find happiness in one another.
Essentially "Belfast" is the "Ted Lasso" of movies: It's so pure and sanguine, that you just want to latch on to it and give it a big hug...and it stands out in a sea of pessimism, at a time when life feels quite desolate.
It's a film that is also wonderfully charming and accessible, and I sure hope that all movie-goers get a chance to experience it with an audience.
We first meet Buddy right on the cusp of him losing his innocence...as he plays in the street of Belfast, an explosion rings out around him. The religious and political clash of Protestants and Catholics set the stage of the film, and "Belfast" could have been about that, but Branagh centers the movie from the perspective of the child, and anything more complex that a 9-year-old couldn't process is left out. That's why it's not surprising that the characters in the movie don't even have names, but instead are just referred to as "Ma," "Pa," "Pop" and "Granny."
"Belfast" is more of a memory of the 1960s than it is an actual recreation of it. That's why it's OK that Ma is played by the knock-out Caitriona Balfe ("Outlander") and Pa is one of the most handsome men in the world, Jamie Dornan ("50 Shades of Gray"). Most children remember their parents as being beautiful and heroic, even if a more objective observer would say otherwise. Everything in "Belfast" is remembered with rose-colored glasses. There are bad people on the streets and also good people, and Buddy's main challenge in life is how he can win the heart of a girl in his class.
Ma and Pa are in love but struggling to rise to the challenges they face. Pa is leaving constantly for his manual labor job in England, leaving Ma to raise Buddy and shield him from the horrors of growing up.
The only other real figures in Buddy's life are his grandparents, played terrifically by two of the most gracious and talented actors of our time. Dame Judi Dench is Granny, with Ciaran Hinds as Pop, are everything that you would want in grandparents...and anyone lucky enough to have ever had grandparents will instantly recognize their warmth, and how vital they are in a young child's life. Pop strategizes with Buddy as to how he can win the school-girl's heart, while Granny rolls her eyes at Pop's ludicrousness. While they bicker by day, Granny and Pop sneak a dance or a peck on the cheek here and there...their candles still burning for one another after all of these years.
Granny and Pop are not just side characters in this story. They represent a generation that seemingly were not able to rise above and provide a better life for their children. They live mostly in squalor, but what they have given to their family is far more valuable than anything money can buy.
Buddy is also influenced heavily by movies and TV. We see him watching "Star Trek" and old Westerns at home, and his family takes him to the movie theater where he experiences larger-than-life characters and images. "Belfast" is shot in black-and-white, but the images at the theater are in color. While watching the Disney classic, "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang," a car plummets off a cliff, but then grows wings and begins to fly. The family gasps at the wonder of it all. Buddy sees this and dreams. He knows there is more to life than Belfast.
How Branagh cherishes his family is palpable, but "Belfast" contains this same sense of wonderment. How did a kid from this part of the world ever make it out, let alone go on to star in Hollywood movies and direct a film like "Thor"? Branagh's story is miraculous, and he attributes his good fortune to those core people who taught him about life, love, humility and perseverance.
Caitriona Balfe may very well find herself with a slew of award-praise for her role, and it's all so incredibly well-deserved. A scene late in the film between Ma and Pa stays on Ma for an extended period of time as tears role down her face...you can just imagine this clip being played as part of a nomination package at every major awards show in town.
That's not to say Dornan, Hinds, Dench and even young Jude Hill aren't tremendous. They are. Dornan's performance is perhaps the film's most surprising...he has come a long way from simply being known as Christian Gray in the "50 Shades of Gray" films. After a hilarious turn in "Barb and Star Go To Vista Del Mar" and now "Belfast," Dornan is positioning himself as one of the top leading men in Hollywood. And come on...Hinds and Dench are also award-worthy. And yes, Jude Hill is cute and all, but for a film like this to work, it all comes down to his effectiveness and Hill carries an innocence through every frame of the film, sharing the screen with all of these other Hollywood heavyweights. He nails it.
"Belfast" is a great film that is being matched with a perfectly-timed release. We are at a point in time where we can look forward with doubt and worry or with hope and optimism. Remembering that we always have family, despite the circumstances, is an important post-pandemic lesson for us all. And being reminded that empathy is a virtue that can be passed through generations is inspiring.
In looking back and romanticizing his childhood, Branagh delivers a gift with "Belfast." It's intimate, aspirational and rooted in the human spirit. When Pa gets up and sings "Everlasting Love" to his dancing wife and wide-eyed son, you'll be reminded of the ones you love, the ones you've lost and the ones that have been left behind...all of whom are equally important in having crafted the person you've become.
Run Time: 1 hour 38 minutes.
Starring: Jude Hill, Jamie Dornan, Caitriona Balfe, Judi Dench, Ciaran Hinds.
Written and Directed by Kenneth Branagh ("Murder on the Orient Express," "Thor," "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit," "Hamlet," "Much Ado About Nothing," "Henry V").
"Belfast" is in theaters on Friday, November 12th, 2021.
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