Belfast — Nostalgia on Film

Image retrieved from TMDb

Is it too reductive and simplistic to say that Belfast is this year’s Irish Roma? Probably, but it is a good place to start when describing what that movie’s about. Roma was the largely autobiographical movie from 2018 directed Alfonso Cuarón, while Belfast is Kenneth Branagh’s autobiographical piece from this year. However, Belfast sets itself apart with its narrow focus. 

The film follows young Buddy (Jude Hill, making his feature film debut) during The Troubles in Ireland, in which Irish Catholics attempt to violently and forcefully remove Irish Protestants from the area. With Buddy being a child, it makes many of the scenes quite difficult to watch. Again to compare it to a recent Oscar winner, it feels in many ways similar to Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit in that you’re witnessing complicated and oftentimes horrific events through the eyes of a child when there’s no easy solution. All Buddy wants to do is play with his friends in the schoolyard, watch his favorite shows, and sit close to the girl he has a crush on in class. But as is the life of a child, the world has other plans for him. 

Where Belfast is most effective is in its ability to make you feel like you’re as stuck in this situation as Buddy and his family. The cinematography is tight and static; the characters always have something that confines them to where they are at that particular moment. There’s no sense that they’ll ever be able to escape the tension and violence, let alone Belfast. And seeing this all through the eyes of a child is what hammers home the overall effect. It’s a story of innocence lost much earlier than it should be. Buddy and his brother Will (Lewis McAskie) are forced to learn things about the world that they really shouldn’t have to know for years. But here they are. 

Hill and McAskie both are well-suited for their roles, but Hill is easily the standout. If he was some random child actor who didn’t fit or who wasn’t any good, he’d ruin the piece. But this kid (hopefully) has a bright future ahead of him. The actor seems to be mature enough to understand the story, yet portray a boy a childlike and idealized view of the world, which slowly begins to crumble the more he learns about it.

The young performers are buttressed by more seasoned actors including Jamie Dornan, Dame Judi Dench, Ciarán Hinds, and Catriona Balfe. While all adult interactions are viewed through the eyes of a child, Buddy eavesdrops a lot, so we do get to see raw and true discussions from the adults about difficult topics. One way for a performance to work its way into my heart is to be warm and loving towards innocent children, and these four actors do so perfectly. They’re the ideal adults for children to have in their lives. 

Through the direction, you can tell that Branagh has a real fondness for his childhood, no matter how difficult it could have been at times. The film is in black and white, but it’s a sleek black and white mixed with digital photography, which creates a happily nostalgic sense about the movie. And the few times we get to see color within the frame are when Buddy and his family are at the cinema. It’s obviously been a big part of Branagh’s adult life, and here he’s saying how much it influenced his childhood. It’s a means of escape. It’s a place of wonder. It’s the feeling that any movie enjoyer can relate to; Branagh just got to grow up and make his own movies. 

And I’m glad he did, because while it’s not exceedingly profound by any stretch, it’s a love letter to a place and a time, ironically viewed through rose-colored glasses. Branagh presents us with a very specific time and place to which in theory, he should be one of the few who can actually relate. But he weaved in the universal themes of family, lost innocence, togetherness, empathy, and understanding. Not profound, but poignant.

Even though it can get overly saccharine at times and never dives particularly deep into its compelling subjects, I can’t help but be drawn to what Belfast is about. Its intentions are firmly in the right place and it seems to execute them perfectly. So what if it’s not particularly deep? It’s a warm blanket of a movie that shows what a family should be.

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