Belfast (Review): Clinging To Family In The Face Of Hardship

Kenneth Branagh writes and directs this charming tale about the value of family and community in times of hardship. Read on for my thoughts about Belfast.

Belfast takes place in Northern Ireland during “The Troubles.” It’s allegedly a semi-autobiographical take on Kenneth Branagh’s childhood. The story revolves around a young boy named Buddy– a kid just trying to understand the world around him through various community influences: mainly his parents, his grandparents, his friends, and his minister. But local toughs are splitting Buddy’s community by hurting/ bullying Catholic citizens.

The concept of Belfast intrigued me right away. Here was a period of time I knew little about, and a culture with which I’m not familiar (I love history and new perspectives). And it quickly became apparent that complex adult issues would be filtered through the perspective of a child– which seemed a cool angle. How would a young boy respond to violence, financial hardships, romance, family problems, etc? In that way Belfast reminds me of a less overtly-comedic Jojo Rabbit.

Not to say it wasn’t funny though– because Belfast was lighter than expected! Though times were hard, that didn’t mean the community suddenly became grim. All the characters felt like well-realized human beings, trying their best with the hands they were dealt. They’re layered and sympathetic and generally comfortable to spend time with. And their family dynamics are well-realized too. This warm/ welcoming tone is arguably Belfast‘s greatest strength. It was able to find the positives in a dark historical time– and can’t we all use a little optimism now and again?

Buddy’s parents sharing a dance

Just a minor warning: Belfast isn’t about any one thing so far as I can tell. That’s to say there isn’t a particular driving force for the narrative. The story is generally about the city of Belfast, understanding its people and culture through the eyes of one family. Don’t go in expecting a fully character-driven narrative.

Let’s get into the technical stuff now… Kenneth Branagh’s direction allowed this world to breathe. Many scenes featured actors just… acting. Sometimes there were long shots which held on people’s faces, or in a room, and simply let a scene play out. Nothing fancy. But it went a long way to enhancing the drama. I could absorb myself in a conversation without getting nauseous from cuts every couple seconds.

I also enjoyed when this style combined with deep focus shots. Your attention would be in the foreground, yet characters would be going about their business behind them. This allowed the world to feel more lived-in and helped characters feel dynamic. Sometimes the characters had other things on their mind than the focus of the shot. Details like those were subtle but cool!

Why was Belfast black and white though? My best guess: it’s a symbol of reality. Every time the family attends a movie or play, their entertainment is shown in colour. From that I gather, entertainment is seen as more vibrant, glorious and otherworldly than life. It’s fun escapism. But the real world is black and white with shades of gray, more serious, more dangerous. And maybe Buddy sees his ordinary world as more boring than the movies. Could be that simple. I’ve grown rusty on film analyses since university…

Belfast features multiple riot scenes which I found to be intense! What made them more effective was how they contrast with the rest of the film. When you’re watching an action movie, for example, you expect certain levels of violence throughout the film. So you become more desensitized early on. But Belfast is more of a family drama with an overarching sense of danger. Therefore, when violence occurs it’s jarring and scary because it FEELS out of the norm for this world.

Buddy learns life lessons from his grandparents in Belfast.

Jude Hill as Buddy had a lot of weight on his shoulders here. It’s not often child actors are even good in movies, let alone good enough to be a lead. But Hill was fantastic in Belfast! He delivered both the comedy and drama with skill. I was impressed with his performance.

Buddy’s Father (Jamie Dornan) is simultaneously pressured into standing up for his fellow Protestants, wants to advance his career, and must contend with long periods away from his children. Dornan gave the role a certain weariness. This is a character who feels in over his head and not sure how he can handle his problems.

Because Buddy’s father is so often gone for work, Buddy’s mother and grandparents are left to raise the kids. The mom (Catriona Balfe) is a badass! Belfast doesn’t go out of its way to tell you so though. Still, this woman is willing to stumble through riots in order to help her children! Balfe plays Buddy’s mother as some mix of sad, anxious and bitter. She’s been given more than her fair share of familial responsibilities, and it’s taken up a lot of her energy.

Buddy’s grandparents (Dame Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds) are Belfast‘s voices of reason. All the neighbourhood’s negative changes worry them, yet they stand by their morals and strive to help the younger generations of their family. They’re a positive influence for the entire clan and arguably the most important guides in Buddy’s life.

The family’s inner-conflicts were handled maturely and with nuance. It shouldn’t be refreshing to see adults act rationally (in spite of their frustrations), or positive family units, but Belfast offers examples of both. They feel more like real people than movie-representations of a family.

My biggest complaint about Belfast was its pacing towards the end. There’s a big climax, then the denouement drags till the film’s closing. Not that these parts weren’t important to the story. The natural ending could have come sooner is all…

The themes of Belfast are timely amidst our ongoing culture wars. Here we see, as in real life, the extremists make the news and carry unjust amounts of influence. And the good, moderate people just trying to live their lives are dragged into fights they never wanted or asked for. Belfast shows us that the best anyone can do is stick to their morals and resist mob mentality. As Buddy’s father teaches him: “If you can’t be good be careful.” I know he wasn’t speaking in a political context, but I believe the meaning can translate to that as well.

Belfast offers an endearing portrayal of a family unit facing hardship. It might not be groundbreaking but it’s Pretty Darn Good at what it’s trying to do.

Got any other recommendations for historically set Irish films? What did you think of Belfast? Please share your thoughts in the comments (no spoilers please). If you have any ideas for future articles, or any questions, let me know. Also be sure to Like this article on Facebook and share if you enjoyed!

Till next time,

Joe Morin

REVIEW METRIC: Don’t bother; If you’re bored; Worth a watch; Pretty darn good; Must see; Watch it A.S.A.P.

By Joseph Morin

Joe's passion for film and entertainment began at 7 years old when his younger brother demanded to watch Duel of the Fates every day for weeks (on DVD). Joe admired the sequence so much, he decided to dedicate his life to film-making and storytelling. He has a degree in Cinema and Media Studies from York University. Joe loves DC superheroes (especially Superman), the first six Star Wars movies, and arguing about media with anyone who will listen.

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