It's awards season again. That means films like Kenneth Branagh's Belfast could be in the cinemas, hoping to get votes to earn year-end honors. There are many Oscar nominees, some of which are specifically made for this task and others that are just as good. Branagh's film is a good example of this, because he blends personal experiences with historical events to produce a high-quality family drama that both heals and hurts the hearts.
Belfast, loosely based upon Kenneth Branagh’s childhood, centers around Buddy (newcomer Jude Hill), a boy who grew up during The Troubles. Although we witness Buddy's neighborhood become ravaged by these aggressions, the director/writer does not focus only on historical events. Rather, we're treated to the reactions of Buddy's parents, Ma (Caitríona Balfe) and Pa (Jamie Dornan) and grandparents Granny (Dame Judi Dench) and Pop (Ciarán Hinds), which shape Buddy's perspective of the period.
Kenneth Branagh is restricted in his film by the overarching story of Belfast's central families. In a sense, the closest spiritual cousin that this movie has is writer-director Alfonso Cuaron's Roma, as both projects are a mix of semi-autobiographical memories and historic turmoil. Even though Belfast is full of scary and sweet moments, it's much more lighthearted than its theme predecessor. It's not intended to disparage Roma, but Cuaron was more of an emotional catharsis while Belfast is more of an affectionate ode to family and history.
While we may be following Buddy throughout Belfast, it is possible that the film has a more child-centric tone. It also doesn't get too personal. Knowing a little bit about The Troubles is a good idea. There's very little explanation. The audience is provided enough detail to make sense of the situation. Cultural and historical touchstones and character moments are combined with pop culture eggs and pop culture gems. Buddy, the life and soul of Belfast is right there with him.
Jude Hill, Belfast's Buddy is an impressive introduction as an actor. This role demands that a young performer can play it. Hill is the protagonist of almost all shots and moments of the movie. He also provides a glimpse into the life of Kenneth Branagh's childhood. It is not wasted time establishing this fact. Just five minutes in, Hill reacts to chaos breaking out on his street.
Though he orbits around charming and heartfelt cast mates like Jamie Dornan, Caitríona Balfe, Dame Judi Dench, and Ciarán Hinds, the focus on Jude Hill is intense and deservedly so. Belfast's story is full of love, loss, history, and that's just the beginning. With an emotional intelligence that's quite keen for an actor of his age, Hill squares up with his seasoned adult co-stars, and never falls into cliché.
Also, the Belfast adult cast is quite a spectacle. Buddy's family is portrayed by a core cast of actors. It's a happy, loving home that's trying to weather the storms that may last for decades. While love is crucial to the survival of Buddy's family, it's also vital for their interpersonal relationships. Buddy is experiencing two different romances during his coming-of age adventures. The equally charming pairs of Caitríona Balfe and Jamie Dornan and Dame Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds establish a beautiful humanity that helps Belfast tackle tough historical issues without having to stoop to manufactured dramatics.
Belfast could very well have easily been a traditional historical biopic, or simply a variation on an autobiographical narrative. These kinds of movies look stunning, but are not always able to tell identifiable stories. It's more like watching a home movie and looking at photos. The experiences displayed in Belfast are described with incredible detail, sound, and image. They transport the viewer into these moments.
Kenneth Branagh uses both his technical expertise and personal experiences to tell a Belfast story. Haris Zambaroukos is a cinematographer who captured the story in black and white. The result is a visual triumph as well as an emotional victory .
Branagh's film is dedicated to the people who left, those that stayed behind and all who lost their lives along the journey. It calls for peace, as it shows what it feels like to be an innocent child once again. He does this without being tied to political solvent issues from the film's time or the time the movie is depicting. Rather, Kenneth Branagh presents a story that can be fondly remembered for generations to come, with the smiles and frowns that any era of human history has to offer.