Belfast is a labor of love that might end up becoming Kenneth Branagh’s
signature film. It is also his most personal film, and it is heavily based on
his childhood in Ireland. The biggest thing that prevents it from becoming an
instant classic is its penchant for cheap sentimentality and easy solutions.
The film has already won the audience award at the Toronto Film Festival. It
also received 7 nominations at the British Independent Film Awards
In the 90’s Branagh built up a reputation for being one of the best and most
promising classically trained actor/directors mainly for such top-notch
Shakespeare films as Henry V (1989), Much Ado about Nothing (1993), Othello
(1995), and Hamlet(1996), which may well be his masterpiece.
He has also had some early missteps. For instance, although his high-profile
version of Frankenstein (1994) featured Robert De Niro as the monster and it was
fairly faithful to the text, it was almost a complete box office and critical
Later somehow, he lost his way doing too many formulaic high profile Hollywood
style projects (despite some bright spots), so his early promise has mostly
remained largely unfulfilled at least on screen.
Belfast bears some resemblance to Hope and Glory which also takes place during
WW II, but it is far more sentimental and less gritty and realistic.
Most of Belfast is told from the viewpoint of a child named Buddy (Jude Hill)
who is a stand in for a young Branagh. He is mostly a good lad, but he gets in
trouble when he steals in order to be accepted by a gang (his older sister
encouraged him to do this.) When his mom finds out she gives him a good tanning.
The streets that Buddy plays in abruptly erupt in violence when the protestants
who represent the majority of the town begin burning down buildings in order to
force the few remaining Catholics out. The local protestant minister exasperates
the religious conflict and in fire and brimstone sermons in which he threatens
that all people who turn to Catholicism will burn eternally in hell.
The relationship between Buddy’s parents is solid but not without problems.
Buddy’s father (Jaimie Dornan) is frequently absent because of his job and when
the kids get out of control his wife (played by Caitriona Baldfe), she blames
her husband. But there is a wonderful dance sequence in which the couple struts
their stuff during the Everlasting Love song, and they look positively joyful
The dad is against violence, but this makes the local terrorists angry. They
threaten to burn his house down if he does not participate in violent
anti-Catholic acts or at least donate money to the Anti-Catholic fund.
The dad gets a faraway job offer and he is tempted to move the family to England
to escape the extortion but his wife resists and wants to stay in the home and
neighborhood that she loves.
The situation is complicated because the kids are very close to their
grandparents. The dying father is put in a home and if the family leaves, they
will have to leave the grandma (played by Judi Dench in a fabulous performance.)
The film is never gets too dark and the mood is lightened with a charming little
subplot involving a young girl named Moira played by Lara McDonell. It is clear
that although they are too young to have a full-fledged relationship, Buddy has
a sizeable crush on her and they are engaged in a cute pre-romantic across
gender friendship that could have been on The Wonder Years show.
Buddy soon learns that she is Catholic and spending time with her teaches him
that Catholics are not necessarily bad, and that many of the negative stories
people say about the rival religion are untrue or exaggerated
The film is mostly in black and white and gives the viewer the feeling that they
are watching old news reals or an old-fashioned movie.
Interestingly enough the movie turns to color when he shows parts of films
within the film including clips from One Millions Years B. C. (which features
Raquel Welch who inspired sexual fantasies for countless film viewers in this
period) and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (which shows the preferred type of
sentimental family entertainment.)
But the changes in the cinematic color palette are not nearly as well done or
attractive as the ones in Mank, which were absolutely gorgeous,
The film is also filled with songs by Van Morrison (who else would capture the
spirit of 60s Ireland better?) Morrison has been in the news lately for his anti
vax stance and he even did a benefit song for this cause with Eric Clapton.
Belfast is a very good crowd-pleasing film that will undoubtedly please fans of
classic Hollywood films and it may get nominated for many awards. The only thing
is that the presence of some great scenes made me expect more and what could
have been a period piece masterpiece.
The main problem is that the film never gets its hands dirty enough when the
presenting political events and everything is wrapped up a bit too tidily. I
almost felt similar to how I would feel if I had just seen an Afterschool
Special, and after it was over that everything was going to be right in the
Not everything could or should Apocalypse Now but this film tries a little too
hard to be family friendly and it also seems like it was made to win Oscars.
However, because of the uniformly fine performances and interesting situations
(although some are not developed enough) the film is still recommended (I almost
gave the film three and half stars). Maybe Branagh will hit the ball out of the
park next time.