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Belfast – Movie Review • Movies.ie

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The parcel: Belfast, summer 1969. Buddy (Jude Hill) must grow up in a close-knit working-class community in Belfast. His Protestant family lives next door to Catholic families, but he struggles to understand what the Troubles are all about. It spills over to her street one day, which worries her mother (Caitriona Balfe). As a builder, his Pa (Jamie Dornan) comes home every fortnight from England to take him to see the pictures. We talk about the family moving overseas and yet his community, his home, is there for him now…

The verdict: Here’s the first big movie of 2022, in the appealing form of Belfast from local boy Kenneth Branagh. While he made a name for himself in England as a writer/director/actor bursting onto the film scene with his triumphant portrayal of Henry V, he often spoke fondly of growing up in his hometown. You can take the boy out of Belfast, but not the boy’s Belfast, it seems. With this film, we have the feeling that Branagh has built this throughout his career. Perhaps waiting for the right moment when a new film about Northern Ireland can look into the past and be much more than just a film about The Troubles. While it has its part to play, particularly in the emotional closing moments, the film is more laser-focused in its determination to paint a vivid portrait of decent, earthy people living in a community rather than survive through a turbulent time. It’s all done with an amiable air of nostalgia but without the rose-tinted bezels that often accompany such stories.

Branagh’s screenplay is a shoe for a Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination in the coming weeks. A semi-autobiographical take on his own childhood in working-class Belfast, he deftly weaves a story of family life into the fabric of his times. This is filtered through the view of a kid with Buddy, a smart and curious kid with a rogue sense of humor. He moves up the class ladder to get closer to a girl he likes and is fascinated by the magic of cinema. It’s certainly Branagh’s love of films there, perhaps studying underrated British director Terence Davies and his portrayals of working-class family life as in The Long Day Closes. The characters are well balanced, even in the supporting cast which says a lot about how a city is made of people rather than buildings and roads. Good and bad memories linger, but they don’t define the characters. It’s a more optimistic scenario than we might have expected and it’s all the better for him too. It’s a film about Northern Ireland that moves forward while looking back. It’s no easy task, but Branagh pulls it off with effortless charm and wisdom.

The key to this is the theme of tolerance. As Dad tells a confused pal at one point, it’s not about ‘them’ or ‘us’, it’s just about religion. The Catholics targeted nearby are neighbors, people who know Buddy and will watch over him. No matter the fire and brimstone coming from the local priest, it’s about knowing what’s right and what’s wrong without being pulled off the sometimes rocky road of life and diverted into a potential life of crime. The way Branagh achieves this is commendable, portraying Ma as the moral compass in Buddy’s life rather than his Pa (who acknowledges him in a key scene with Ma). There’s a feeling here that Buddy’s support structure isn’t just his family, it’s also his community. Talk of leaving home to find another home is also a recurring theme and alludes to what might have been had Branagh’s own family remained. It’s an honest and cleverly structured film about childhood that puts the main character on the same level as the adults, bridging that gap that would otherwise have tipped him into sickening sentimentality.

With brief but not overused splashes of color on its overall black-and-white canvas, Belfast is a film that also looks great on the big screen. Belfast’s own Van Morrison provides the evocative music and occasional film flourishes like the High Noon theme song lend a cinematic touch to the streets of Belfast’s Wild West. The actors are all uniformly excellent, but special mention has to go to newcomer Jude Hill. He has this childlike excitement but also a growing maturity in his performance that tells the audience that no matter what, Buddy will be fine. Belfast is a small cracker, a crowd pleaser that acknowledges the past, then cautiously moves away from it and looks to the future of Northern Ireland with renewed hope. Amen to that.

Rating: 4.5 / 5

Review by Gareth O’Connor

A little cracker

Belfast (UK / 12A / 98 mins)

In short: a small cracker

Directed by Kenneth Branagh.

With Jamie Dornan, Caitriona Balfe, Jude Hill, Judi Dench, Ciaran Hinds.