Right before his latest film screened in front of a packed audience at the Middleburg Film Festival, writer-director Kenneth Branagh explained that Belfast was a love letter to not only his family, but the city and community he grew up in. He stated that he got the itch to write this movie during the pandemic because we were at a time where the collective world was isolated and separated from everyone, even our loved ones. He also mentioned his fondness for the cinema growing up, and how it was not only the ultimate escape for a young lad in Ireland, but a place he longed to be back in over the last year. With this, he left and let Belfast speak for itself and in a brisk 97-minute run time, Branagh brings magic back to the movies as Belfast delivers the best film he’s has ever created.
We follow a young boy named Buddy (Jude Hill), who lives with his father (Jamie Dornan), mother (Caitríona Balfe) and brother Will (Lewis McAskie) in Belfast in 1969. His grandmother (Oscar winner Judi Dench) and grandfather (Ciarán Hinds) live a couple of blocks over, and their family is close with everyone in their local neighborhood. Buddy is also experiencing his first crush in school as well as found love for cinema and all things put in the big and small screen. But at this time in the late 1960s, Ireland was going through The Troubles, a political, cultural and religious war of Catholics vs Protestants that divided the entire country, thus leading to violence in the streets and concerns from Buddy’s entire family. As tensions build, Buddy’s father is presented an opportunity to get his family out of Belfast, even though this means they leave everything they know behind for the hope of a better, safer life.
While Belfast does have its drama and conflict due to the historical events that surround the story, this movie isn’t about those heavy issues. Instead, Branagh focuses on universal, nostalgic themes centered about childhood, family, and the power of love. We see Buddy grow up right in front of our eyes; getting his first crush, his knowledge in school and the world growing with each passing day and realizing what it takes to be strong to face all of life’s curveballs. And with all of this going on, this young lad escapes to worlds outside of his on the big and small screen. Cinema is used as a destination to unite the family together, as there is a scene where they all lose their minds to seeing one of the flying sequences in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. By showing this, Branagh’s message is clear, that the worlds on the big screen can save us like it did him and his family.
This ensemble sinks right into their characters and gives effortless performances that you can’t help but fall in love with. Hill is a perfect vessel for the audience to cling on to, as he gives an adorable yet charming performance. Balfe and Dornan are electric, with comfortable chemistry to make you feel the love between these two parents who are trying to provide for their two boys. Balfe, known for her time on the hit television show Outlander, is strong and vulnerable throughout, pleading with Dornan to see that they have something special in Belfast, and that they can’t leave. But Dornan balances her with his charisma and confidence, letting his wife know that their life is wherever they are together, and not necessarily in Belfast. The two come together and it leads to one of the best scenes of the year that involved the song “Everlasting Love.” Then there are the lovely performances by Dench and Hinds, who are just absolutely special here. Dench fits perfectly in this role as Granny, lovely as the soft spoken, heavy hearted matriarch of this beautiful family. But it is her counterpart, Hinds, that gives the best performance of the film. He provides his son wisdom and then passes it on to his grandson, Buddy and does it all with the ease only the veteran actor could provide. Hinds, a character actors for decades, delivers something here that will remind everyone just how special of an actor he is and should lend to the Academy celebrating it later on in the year.
Beyond this marvelous cast and the music done by the legendary Van Morrison, whose original song is pretty good, Branagh is the star here. This is his most personal film he’s written or directed in his extensive, celebrated career. Buddy is a vessel for Branagh, and all of the other characters in the film are loosely based on members of the director’s family. But beyond this being a semi-autobiographical account of Branagh’s childhood, Belfast is a deeply relatable film for all who see it. As someone who is part Irish, I related to Buddy, thus I related to Branagh’s story. The way he talks to his parents, love of cinema, and connection to his grandfather, it was like taking a slice of my life and putting it on the big screen and setting it half way across the world in another era. Tears flowed from my face as each moment of the final fifteen minutes played out. When I told Branagh at the festival how my grandfather called me buddy, how we were as thick as thieves and spent a ton of time together when I was growing up just like him. He gently smiled and said, “That’s wonderful but isn’t that crazy? How time changes yet we carry the best of us from generation to generation. It’s universal.” He’s absolutely right. Belfast is a universal, relatable masterpiece that tugs at the heartstrings and gives you a glimpse of the past to move all of us forward into the future.
This review is from the Middleburg Film Festival. Focus Features will release Belfast only in theaters on November 12.
Photo: Rob Youngson / Focus Features