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Review: Belfast (2021)

Belfast (2021)

Directed by: Kenneth Branagh

Premise: In the late 1960, a family contemplates leaving their home in Northern Ireland as violence escalates between Protestants and Catholics.  

What Works: Belfast is a tribute to a particular city and neighborhood at a specific period of time but it’s not really a nostalgia piece. It has a fondness for the people and places of Belfast but the movie also dramatizes the terror of being a kid. The story unfolds from a young character’s point of view and everything is big, new, and scary and doubly so because of the violent episodes happening in the neighborhood. There’s a warmness and humanity to this movie that is endearing but also heartbreaking. The family at the center of Belfast does not want to leave their home town but their options become starker as the neighborhood becomes increasingly violent. The film provides a vivid sense of the disintegration of the community; these people have lived in harmony for decades but are now turning on each other because of outside pressures. The central cast of Belfast are well paired with their roles and the film is populated by interesting and endearing characters. Jude Hill plays Buddy, the family’s youngest son and the film’s point of view character. Hill turns in an impressive performance that is authentically youthful and not precocious. Buddy is a smart kid but he is a child and responds convincingly to everything happening around him. The revelation of Belfast is Jamie Dornan as the father. Dornan has had some bad luck with casting, namely being saddled with the role of Christian Grey in the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, but Dornan is quite good in Belfast in which he is charming but also fatherly. The cast also includes Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds as the grandparents. They are an appealing couple while also possessing an understated sadness. Belfast is beautifully shot. It’s full of images that could be screenshotted, printed, and hung on a wall as fine art. Especially remarkable is the use of screen space. Filmmaker Kenneth Branagh sets characters in both the foreground and the background and the interplay between them makes for very interesting viewing.

What Doesn’t: Belfast possess an air of violence but the actual outbreaks of violence occur suddenly rather than erupting out of a gradual build up. There’s a point to that suddenness; it captures the unpredictability of living in a warzone and it’s a valid way to approach the violence but it is mostly disconnected from the family story. The violence reaches its climax fairly early and the film continues on. The final stretch of the movie resolves the family story but it doesn’t have the dramatic pressure of the threat of violence.

Bottom Line: Belfast is a charming and beautifully made film. Its narrative structure is a little loose but in a way that is consistent with the unpredictability of life. This is a potent combination of comic and melancholic elements and a moving portrait of a family and a community.

Episode: #879 (November 21, 2021)