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Set in the titular Northern Ireland city during the late 1960s, amidst the political upheaval of “The Troubles,” the story is told from the point of view of nine-year-old Buddy, whose middle-class Protestant parents struggle over the decision to stay in their familiar but increasingly dangerous neighborhood or move the family away to a safer place.
Kenneth Branagh wrote and directed the film, based on his own autobiographical experiences as a young boy growing up in Belfast. It stars Judi Dench, Ciaran Hinds, Caitriona Balfe (Outlander), and Jamie Dornan (Fifty Shades of Grey).
Belfast is a well-crafted coming-of-age flick that also provides a historical perspective through the eyes of young Buddy (Jude Hill), a stand-in for writer-director Kenneth Branagh at age nine. Branagh has referred to Belfast as his most personal film to date, and his connection to the material is evident in every frame.
In some ways, Buddy’s lives a typical life. He loves movies, goes to school, and is just starting to take an interest in girls. But there are bigger issues to deal with on his street corner. Belfast is starting to bubble up with tension, becoming a political and religious hotbed. A bombing on his block early on becomes the scale by which everyone in the neighborhood measures their priorities for the rest of the story. In the role of Buddy, Hill is a marvel, able to nearly steal every scene he’s in—against some top-tier actors.
Branagh’s direction is smooth and uncomplicated, letting the words and pictures tell the important story in tandem. The opening shot shows present-day Belfast in color before quickly transitioning to the city in black and white more than half a century earlier, as tensions began to rise. The monochromatic palette becomes not just a tool for indicating the vintage setting (it’s 1969) but a way to show how each of the main characters faces a colorless, drab existence. There are some flashes of color here and there, though. While some characters sit in a movie theater and watch a play, the performance is radiated in color while the audience remains in black and white. Haris Zambarloukos’ strong, high-contrast cinematography helps to convey this idea of living life through art.
Branagh has always been adept at threading the needle in terms of tone, from light to serious, creating something entertaining while evoking just the right emotions, and he’s been recognized for it in the past. Once again he has several chances to enter the awards race with this entry. He could earn an Oscar nomination for his directing, for the reasons mentioned above, as well as his touching, intricate screenplay. Belfast could also find itself on the short list for a best picture nomination, and Branagh, as one of the producers, would have his name on that category as well.
Belfast benefits from a stellar cast and skilled direction in its depiction of a personal story with a fresh perspective on a complicated moment in history.
Whether you watch it with someone who likes historical films, movies about the UK, stories about families or with an affinity for Branagh’s work, you’ll find many reasons to enjoy this.
Belfast marks the sixth collaboration between Branagh and Dench. Not only was Branagh born in Belfast, three other cast members, including Dornan, also call the Northern Irish city their birthplace.