Undoubtedly his most personal film to date, Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast is a quietly moving and universally resonating film about the roots that connect us, the family ties that define who we are, the childhood memories and moments that shaped who we were and continue to linger, and the agonizing conflict of not knowing whether to stay or leave the place you call home.
Filmed in gorgeous black and white, Belfast does not attempt to be sentimental, forcefully moving or even nostalgic. Never trying to become what it simply is not, it remains earnest, honest and intimate throughout. By focusing on the small things, the intricate moments, the memories that never fade, the film is clearly not interested in over-dramatization. Instead, Branagh keeps his sight on the deeply felt connections between home, family and country.
What makes Belfast strongly resonate, aside from telling Branagh’s own personal story, is that it’s essentially a film about the extremely difficult choice millions around the world have to make everyday. When the place one calls ‘home’ offers nothing but hardship, sectarian violence, discrimination and hate, do you simply exit? The obvious question is yes, but such agony is always accompanied by things of great emotional value: the memories you made, your childhood that blossomed on those very same streets, the family roots that grew in that very rocky soil, the bonds you made with friends. In every corner, there’s a piece of yourself that grew here – so do you leave all this and go?
Such a struggle between what the mind says and what the heart feels is the center of the story. Set in late-1960s Northern Ireland, the film opens with an extended sequence of sectarian violence as a result of the dark Troubles era that Ireland witnessed. Primarily ethno-nationalist, the conflict has taken so many lives, and on a deeper scale, has ostracized even more souls. Kicking off with an attack on one of the Protestant streets, Branagh immediately puts you in his characters’ shoes, capturing the moment when ‘home’ is no longer the place that unites everyone.
From there on, the film chooses to show us the perspective of Buddy (Jude Hill), a young boy who grows up while trying to make sense of what’s going on around him. On one hand, there’s joy and warmth in his exchanges with his loving family: his charismatic father (Jamie Dornan), his protective mother (a magnificent Caitriona Balfe) and his amusing grandparents (Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench). On the other hand, the world around Buddy is literally burning: the violence is getting closer and closer to home, hate is spreading like wildfire and his father is seriously considering moving the family to London. And in these confusing moments of transition and conflict, Buddy gradually comes to terms with the realities of living in the world.
The film’s strongest moments are its quietest: the small laughs that Buddy exchanges with his grandparents, the endearing moments of affection Buddy holds for his classmate, the innocence of playing on the streets just before conflict hits, the family outings to catch the movies that open doors to far more imagination and beauty than one could imagine. Against a backdrop of tough choices, aggression and hardships, these moments are increasingly what makes Belfast truly affecting, particularly as it addresses the dilemma of leaving all this behind for the sake of a better future elsewhere. Not a single moment, no matter how small or trivial, is wasted here; after all, they’re an indispensable part of who we are.
Bottom line: Sincere, quietly moving and wonderfully constructed, Belfast is a film about the small, and ever important, things. Rather than going for the epic, it goes for the most personal and intimate, capturing what it’s like to love the very same place that has let you down and crushed your dreams. A beautiful film about the roots that bind – and hurt.
This review is from the Toronto International Film Festival. Focus Features will release Belfast on November 12.