Film review: Kenneth Branagh’s 'Belfast' | Under The Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Saturday, November 27th, 2021  

Belfast

Studio: Focus Features
Director: Kenneth Branagh

Nov 10, 2021 Web Exclusive
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Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser that has good intentions but consistently struggles to draw a line between its realistic and fantastical elements. The film won the People’s Choice Award at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival and is currently one of the frontrunners in next year’s Oscars race.

Set in 1969, the film follows a young boy, Buddy (Jude Hill), as he grows up in his hometown of Belfast, Northern Ireland. Amidst the heightened violence and tensions between the Protestants and Catholics in the British constituent, Buddy makes his way through his daily routine. This mainly consists of trying to succeed in school to impress a girl he likes, spending time with his family–his Granny (Judi Dench) and Pop (Ciarán Hinds) in particular–and attempting to live a normal life in a place that, right now, is anything but.

While the civil unrest is what sets the stage for much of the film, the main conflict in Buddy’s life is the tensions between his mother (Caitriona Balfe) and father (Jaime Dornan). With his father commuting between Northern Ireland and mainland England for work, leaving his mother to care for Buddy and his brother alone, Buddy often overhears and spies on the two fighting with one another. To figure out how to stay safe and make a living in a place riddled with mass unemployment, his parents begin to consider leaving Belfast for good, threatening the routine Buddy has built, the relationships he has made, and the only place he considers home.

Given that his directorial career has mostly consisted of period pieces and blockbuster films thus far, Belfast is Branagh’s most personal film. The director not only hails from Belfast but is extraordinarily successful at capturing the spirit of community that comes with being part of a city. The film uses the central conceit of Buddy’s story to constantly shed light on all of Belfast’s civilians’ dreams and struggles. The film balances its darker elements, ranging from daytime riots to supermarket looting, with a constant spirit of hope, evident through the actions and personalities of the film’s main characters. This highlights the film’s central idea: even with its hardships, it is always possible to maintain a strong and unwavering connection to the place we come from. This theme is most effectively emphasized in the scenes where Buddy talks to his grandparents, who often use their sage and life experiences to highlight that this concept is intergenerational, and in a sense, universal.

Trying to balance a realistic portrait of Belfast in 1969 with an airy fantasy of a child growing up is a difficult task. Unfortunately, the film does not capture and relay these plot lines in a way that complement one another. Instead, by abruptly bouncing between serious moments and comedic ones, the film’s tone often feels mismatched and overtly calculated. This is especially problematic in the film’s more serious moments, which center around the tumultuous violence in Belfast. While Buddy and his family are usually directly involved in and impacted by these bursts of violence, the film often sacrifices addressing the immediate consequences of these events. Instead, the story moves on too quickly, usually jumping to another plot point that is often completely unrelated to the grisly events that just transpired. This tactic constantly makes the film feel like it is not taking itself seriously enough, and even in the sequences where it is, the lack of focus or controlled direction cannot piece the story together cohesively and compellingly.

The film’s technical elements, especially the cinematography and sound, only further emphasize this issue. The film is shot mostly in black-and-white, contains flashy and athletic camera movements and has an extraordinarily long soundtrack. These qualities may fit when the film operates as a comedy, but they feel incredibly out-of-place and awkward when they are used during the film’s serious scenes.

At the heart of Belfast is the film’s ensemble, which does a fantastic job at keeping the story alive. Balfe and Dornan are excellent in their portrayal of Buddy’s mother and father, capturing both the love that the two characters feel for one another and their fears and apprehensions about the future. In his first role, Hill shines as Buddy, nailing the constant sense of childlike wonder that his character possesses. Even when the story isn’t always working, the performances are enough to keep viewers hooked to the screen, waiting to see what happens next. (www.focusfeatures.com/belfast)

Author rating: 5.5/10

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Average reader rating: 4/10



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