Northern Ireland in the late 1960s comes alive in writer / director Kenneth Branagh‘s “Belfast,” a semi-autobiographical tale about a 9-year-old boy whose world is turned upside down by unrest and turmoil in his life and home. I loved everything about this touching, funny, poignant, and beautiful film, and it is among the very best of the year.
Buddy (Jude Hill) is growing up in tumultuous times. There’s violence in the streets of his working class neighborhood, and Ma (Caitriona Balfe) and Pa (Jamie Dornan) are doing the best they can to shield him from the troubles of the world. The young boy can sense the changes in the air at home too, as Pa wants to uproot the family and move far away. Buddy takes comfort in his relationship with his grandparents (Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds, who steal every scene they’re in), and struggles with a sense of belonging as he navigates an ever-changing reality.
Branagh creates a fully realized sense of time and place with Haris Zambarloukos‘s stunning black and white cinematography and the use of Belfast-born musician Van Morrison’s extensive catalog of pop songs to aid in telling his story. The look of this film is exceptional, with beautiful camera work and a richly detailed visual composition. It’s absolutely gorgeous.
It’s contagious how Buddy finds joy in a time of considerable instability, and Branagh does a great job of expressing visually that this story is seen through the boy’s eyes. We see what Buddy sees, we hear what he overhears. This adds a depth of sadness that’s touching and moving, yet never overly sentimental. It’s a coming-of-age drama that’s as timeless as it is inventive.
The script (written by Branagh) feels highly personal as well, making it effortless to feel an instant connection with Buddy. There’s just the right balance of humor, heart, and sadness in the storytelling.
Every single element of “Belfast” comes together to make a cohesive whole, from the acting, directing, screenplay, cinematography, and the lovely original jazz score. This is a strong, outstanding film.
By: Louisa Moore