Belfast is a departure from most current mainstream cinema.
It’s a throwback kind of movie that perhaps can trace its roots to great movies from the past like John Ford’s classic How Green Was My Valley (1941).
Belfast feels old fashioned. In a good way. Writer/director Kenneth Branagh chose to shoot most of the film in nostalgic black-and-white. It’s a bold choice these days, but entirely appropriate considering the theme of the movie and the fact that it’s told in flashback.
The story is set in the Sixties, when many movies, particularly foreign films were still being shot in black and white. It’s a time of conflict in Northern Ireland, the place where Branagh grew up.
While you might assume that Belfast would be a movie about the political/religious clash that made Belfast famous around the world, you can’t always judge a movie by its title.
The rioting and looting are certainly part of the story here, but largely the backdrop to the story of a family caught up in an unfolding chapter of modern history.
The story centers on Buddy, a 9-year-old boy whose life makes a sudden turn one day when he’s wielding a wooden sword in the street with his neighborhood friends one minute and swept up in the violence of an angry mob the next.
To a large degree, the events are seen through Buddy’s eyes and shown from his perspective. Belfast is an autobiographical tale. Buddy is Kenneth Branagh at age 9.
Belfast is a project that Branagh has wanted to do for quite some time. The pandemic afforded him the time and space to fully turn his attention to it.
Branagh is an acclaimed filmmaker, a very serious filmmaker. His work includes film adaptations of Shakespeare like Henry V (1989), Much Ado About Nothing (1993) and Hamlet (1996). More recently, he’s expanded to more high-profile projects like Thor (2011) and Cinderella (2015).
Belfast is a departure from the trajectory of Branagh’s career, clearly a very personal film about the lives of an ordinary family caught up in the events of an extraordinary time.
The script is rich in detail. The characters are fully realized and brought to the screen with an entourage of some first-rate talent including Judi Dench, Claran Hinds and Jamie Dornan.
Newcomer Jude Hill turns in a performance that would seem to be a sure bet for an Oscar nomination. He is captivating throughout, even in extreme close-up shots when every nuance counts and there is no room for the slightest error. He’s a remarkable young actor.
Jamie Dornan and Caitriona Balfe play Buddy’s father and mother. They are a young couple struggling with financial problems amid the explosive events taking place just outside their front door. They are torn between staying in Belfast despite the unrest or relocating to a more peaceful environment.
Judi Dench and Claran Hinds play Buddy’s grandmother and grandfather whom he dearly loves. Their on-screen chemistry is warm, genuine and memorable.
What Branagh succeeds in doing is creating a engrossing story around characters and relationships. The individual storylines are well developed and compelling.
Branagh, the filmmaker, handles the performances with the master touch of someone with a wealth of experience from stage and screen. He knows what he wants. And he makes it happen with the veteran members of his cast as well as the first-timers.
Stylistically, he effortlessly moves from black and white images to the occasional dash of color in the form of movie clips that are shown and a brief scene from a stage play.
He interweaves and injects short movie clips into the story including a scene from High Noon (1952) that foreshadows a parallel moment near the conclusion of Belfast.
Belfast is a labor of love. What Branagh has achieved here is gaining recognition at film festivals as well as drawing the attention of critics and fans.
The question here is whether a film like Belfast can be successful at the box office or whether it will be one of those movies like last year’s Nomadland that earns a handful of Oscars despite the fact that hardly anyone actually went to see it.
Hopefully, Belfast will arouse some curiosity and find a following among people who still appreciate good, old-fashioned moviemaking.
Belfast opens in theaters November 12.