This is a version of a review appearing on ABC Radio across regional Victoria on March 17, 2022.
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Cast: Jude Hill, Caitríona Balfe, Jamie Dornan, Ciarán Hinds, Judie Dench, Lewis McAskie, Colin Morgan.
|"Milk? I thought you got the milk."|
In the past decade, Kenneth Branagh has shown he can do pretty much anything as a director. Having mostly left the Bard behind (aside from the little-seen biopic All Is True), Branagh has tackled superheroes, fairy tales, spies, and whodunnits with a fair amount of success.
These big-budget Hollywood-friendly flicks share Branagh's deft hand with drama, light touch with a laugh, and eye for spectacle. This is true too of Belfast, even though it couldn't be more removed from his other recent films unless it was an animated western.
Based on Branagh's own upbringing in the titular city, the story provides a child's-eye-view of The Troubles. Branagh stand-in Buddy (Hill) tries to understand why the Catholics and Protestants of his neighbourhood are at war with each other, and the impact living in Belfast is having on his family.
Aside from being a poignant look at The Troubles and those caught up in it, Belfast is a beautiful essay on innocence, belonging, community and family. There's an honesty and simplicity to the way the story is told, befitting of its young guide. In Buddy, the film has a naïve core that's never manipulative - it just feels real and honest. Much of this is due to Branagh's steady hand, the beautiful black-and-white cinematography of Haris Zambarloukos, and the wonderful performance from 11-year-old Hill, who is a revelation.
Dornan and Balfe are also great as Buddy's parents, as they try to do the right thing by their family in the face of war, depression and recession, without forsaking the city and community they feel is part of their very beings. They're ably assisted by the grandparents, Hind and Dench, who add gravitas and humour to the mix.
The humour is important. Not only does it lighten the heavy load of the film, but it helps capture the Northern Irish charm, spirit and heart in the face of adversity. Belfast is as much a love letter to a lost youth and a loved city, as it is a snapshot of The Troubles. You will laugh out loud throughout this film, just as you'll be wowed and even moved to tears.
Branagh's lived experience obviously shines through in this, but its his ability to distil it into a moving and enjoyable film that's perhaps more important. There are some bravura moments and some beautiful shots that capture the intimacy of a childhood home and community torn apart by religion-fueled insanity.