Kenneth Branagh has been one of the most inconsistent filmmakers in recent years. His filmography has been one filled with inconsistency and films that are forgetful or others that are so bad, it is impossible to forget them. He’s so inconsistent that most films he puts out, always have me nervous and without expectations. Even with the praise that Belfast was getting prior to TIFF, or the few pictures that I had seen before going in, I was still apprehensive. This was from a director that had never blown me away, always left me completely unsatisfied by his films. And yet, Belfast was the complete opposite. In fact, it is Branagh’s best film, the film he seemed to always be meant to make and yet, waited so long to do so.
Belfast is Branagh’s Roma. A love letter to a city, a time of his past, a family that might not be his but is heavily based on his own life experience. It’s a love letter to a city that suffered and those who had to leave for their own safety during the 1960s. It’s a tale that seems familiar and yet, Branagh imbues it with so much care and love that it bleeds off the screen. It’s a familiar tale, a story of family and love, but Branagh does it as only he could.
A coming-of-age drama set during the tumult of late-1960s Northern Ireland, the film follows young Buddy (Jude Hill) as he navigates a landscape of working-class struggle, sweeping cultural changes, and sectarian violence. Buddy dreams of a glamorous future that will whisk him far from the Troubles, but, in the meantime, he finds consolation in his charismatic Pa (Jamie Dornan) and Ma (Caitríona Balfe), and his spry, tale-spinning grandparents (Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench).
There’s is something so tender about Belfast, even when the subject becomes harsh and difficult, the camera just calms it all down. There are a few moments where Branagh takes full advantage of filming in black and white, when the family goes to the theatre and we see the film through Buddy’s eyes, it is the only moment of colour. It’s such a little moment and yet, tells us everything about the film he is making. Buddy is clearly a part of Branagh’s own life, he might not be him per se but Buddy’s love for cinema is clearly taken from his own love. It’s a small thing, something that you might miss at first, but in a world that Buddy sees as black and white, cinema is the only thing in colour and that has all the meaning in the world.
If Jude Hill is a revelation in the role of Buddy, the film truly belongs to Jamie Dornan and Caitríona Balfe. They both command every scene they are in, saying so much without saying anything at times. Their chemistry is incredible, whether they are in the middle of an argument or a loving and tender scene, it just reads perfectly off the screen. Both have been able in their career to deliver performances that demonstrate how talented they both are but Belfast is them at their best. It is an incredible feat and proves that they got so much more to deliver, crafting performances that stay with you, managing to walk the fine line that this film demands. It’s something that is not easy to do and yet, both do it incredibly well.
Comparisons to Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma will be made when the film releases. After all, both are inspired by the director’s childhoods and filmed in black and white. It is clear that this film would probably never have been made if it wasn’t for Roma and yet, this is where I would stop the comparison. Belfast might be about the family that we follow but it is also about the conflict that erupted in the late ’60s and how it changed the city itself. It’s about those who lived there, those who left because of it and those who decided to stay. As much as it is about Buddy and his family, it is also about Belfast itself. This is Branagh’s love letter to the city that saw him grow up in. And it is an incredible one.