At a recent screening, Kenneth Branagh told the rapt audience that his love affair with his latest film “Belfast” his semi-autobiographical film about his growing up and leaving his beloved home of Belfast, was long in the making. Branagh noted, “This story was 50 years in the making, always in my head, talking to me. When COVID happened, I listened and I wrote it.”
Branagh wrote it, indeed. An elegant shot film, mostly in black and white, “Belfast” is a poignant, heartfelt, funny; a deeply personal tale of the tumult that was growing up in a violent, fractured community in Northern Ireland. Jude Hill, a young actor worthy of all the kudos he’s receiving, plays Kenneth’s alter ego Buddy. He’s a sweet, curious lad who revels in his family’s love. Mummy (gorgeously played by Caitriona Balfe) his doting grandparents (the divine Judi Dench and equally superb Ciaran Hinds.)
The sadness for Buddy is that the Dad he adores (a terrific turn by Jamie Dornan,) is often gone for a higher paying job in England and comes home sporadically. But he’s still a present figure even when he’s not there. The family is Protestant and live in a mixed religious neighborhood alongside their friendly Catholic neighbors. But the utopian coziness ends when the ‘troubles’ begin. Buddy’s moral driven Dad steadfastly refuses to take sides. That in turn brings more conflict with the bad guy leader of the local Ulster Volunteer Force. But back to the family, the backbone of the story. Mom is a tough lass, loving but firm, torn between her devotion to her neighborhood and the reality of what their life is becoming. Buddy’s Dad is more realistic, he sees the writing on the now graffiti laden walls of their beloved town.
Dornan and Balfe are just wonderful in their roles. Dench and Hinds are otherworldly in theirs. As a devoted couple after decades of marriage, their shorthand of love and sarcasm is a joy to watch. When the prospect of Buddy leaving them becomes real, his anguish and theirs defines the word heartbreaking. Showing what civil upheaval does to this one family and their neighborhood is wrenching.
Belfast born Van Morrison wrote the music which fits pitch perfectly. “Belfast” surely will be the recipient of numerous awards across the board; writing, directing, acting, cinematography, music etc., as it should be. Branagh’s passion project “Belfast” is a true love letter to the people who stayed, who left and to all who still hold Belfast dear. “Belfast” is a jewel of a film.