Belfast is the most personal film yet for writer/director Kenneth Branagh and could only be made after his parents died.
August 15, 1969. Belfast. Riots. The city would never be the same. We’ve all heard about the fighting between Catholics and Protestants in Ireland but this film really puts in on display. Appropriately, Belfast focuses in on Buddy (Jude Hill), a nine-year-old boy. Buddy’s life in North Belfast is turned upside down right there in an instant. It isn’t just that he has to run for his life but whether he likes it or not, his family is bound to move away from the only city he knows. Imagine living in a world where everybody knows your name to having to move to another city. While the world might be changing, other things are still the same. Among them are joy, laughter, music, and of course, movies. Appropriately, the music comes from legendary Belfast native Van Morrison.
There’s a lockdown on screen but not because of the same reasons many of us stayed home for much of 2020. Buddy knows what heroes are from watching American films. Westerns like High Noon and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, for example. But can his father, Pa (Jamie Dornan), be the hero that Buddy needs? What about his mom, Ma (Caitríona Balfe)? Is she willing to change her life and uproot their family? Is it worth it even if it means moving away from loved ones? And then you have Granny (Judi Dench) and Pop (Ciarán Hinds) dispensing advice when Buddy’s dad isn’t there. The film seeks to ask some hard questions while also blending genres.
Branagh reteams with a number of collaborators from previous films, including cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos and editor Úna Ní Dhonghaíle. To no surprise, the end result is such a beautiful picture. This is something that I cannot stress enough! I’ve seen the film twice now–the Music Box Theatre in Chicago and the David Geffen Theater at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. Attending the LA premiere is a once-in-a-lifetime experience and it’s such a beautiful venue for the film. Belfast plays so beautifully and improves on second viewing! What’s important is that one can really see how personal this is for Branagh.
The film falls under a category called auto-fiction–the film draws upon his own lived experiences but is fictionalized to a degree. For all intents and purposes, Buddy is Branagh. Because of the pandemic, some shots are framed in a way that they might not have been pre-March 2020. Filmmakers are getting rather creative when it comes to such scenes during a pandemic. Windows might normally be closed but because of the pandemic, they are open instead.
Branagh was awarded with the Lifetime Achievement Award prior to the recent Chicago International Film Festival screening. Following the Chicago premiere, he provided many insights during the Q&A. For one, this film could only be made after his parents died but, also, because of the pandemic. Branagh shared how he stared into silence while working on the script. No cars or planes, he told the audience. However, he did not share this insight during Tuesday’s exclusive press conference for the Critics Choice Association.
While a few film clips are included in Technicolor, other films did not make the cut. Among them: The Great Escape, The Sound of Music, and Yellow Submarine. They were in there at one point but at some point, edits were made. Speaking for myself, it would have been awesome to see Yellow Submarine while watching the film. You can only place so many film clips and still serve the story. But anyway, it’s an interesting choice for a mostly Black-and-White film.
I’d be remiss if I did not bring up Jamie Dornan’s standout rendition of “Everlasting Love.” It’s one of those songs that come at just the right point in the story especially with the friction between Pa and Ma. You almost wish there was an Academy Awards category that honored best musical moment because the song isn’t original for the film. The music plays such a big role in this film and it’s not just limited to Van Morrison. There are some Western and classic Irish tunes making their way into the film.
Make no mistake about it but Belfast is an Oscar contender. Belfast is one of the best pictures this year and it shows through the entire craft from start to finish. Putting a film together isn’t easy, less so during a pandemic. This is a personal film and if it took a pandemic to get it in front of us, that’s a win for the magic of cinema.
DIRECTOR/SCREENWRITER: Kenneth Branagh
CAST: Caitríona Balfe, Judi Dench, Jamie Dornan, Ciarán Hinds, Colin Morgan, and introducing Jude Hill
Focus Features will release Belfast in theaters on November 12, 2021.
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