'Belfast' review: Kenneth Branagh's autobiographical drama filled with charm and energy
Courtesy of Focus Features
Kenneth Branagh’s savory film memoir “Belfast” is filled with life and energy. There’s dancing, singing, comedic zingers and romance washed in a gorgeous black and white palette. Easily Branagh’s most self-reflective work to date and arguably his best, “Belfast” tells the tale of a young boy named Buddy (Jude Hill – a showstopper) growing up on the streets in 1969 Northern Ireland amid a religious culture clash: The Protestants vs. Catholics. This gesture of a larger social history is broader in scope and adds tension to an otherwise breezy narrative. By doing this, Branagh avoids the pitfalls of similar artists’ trying to reflect on their childhood (looking at you “Honey Boy”) because his story speaks to more than one person in the room.
Earnestly juggling several characters and relationships, Branagh predominantly tells the story through the eyes of 9-year-old Buddy as he watches his small neighborhood become enveloped by The Troubles, a unionist conflict between Northern Irish folks and the republicans on whether to stay in the United Kingdom or break off and join Ireland. For his entire life, Buddy’s family had lived peacefully across the aisle from their Catholic neighbors, but that quickly ended in August 1969 and families had an ultimatum: stay or relocate.
This is the predicament Buddy (and, in spirit, Branagh’s) family found themselves in and the rest of “Belfast” explores the fundamentals behind their eventual (and inevitable) decision. There’s numerous reasons for them to stick around, chief among them, Buddy’s grandparents-played affectionately by Ciaran Hinds and Judi Dench-are nearby and his harmless courtship with the cute girl in his class is slowly gaining steam. Yet with Pa (Jamie Dornan) gone weeks at a time for work, it puts a heavy burden on Ma (Caitriona Balfe) to raise their two boys and keep them out of trouble.
Branagh methodically nurtures the story along with a lively soundtrack and a resounding sense of place. Even if the barricaded checkpoints insist otherwise, Belfast is home and the background noise humming with children playing in the streets yearns back to simpler times where technology was irrelevant, and people were present. When the family takes a trip to the local picture house to watch “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” the sense of wonderment on their faces says it all. They’ve never seen anything like it.
Down the home stretch, “Belfast” feels like there’s a cog missing, something that collectively pieces everything together. The conflict with The Troubles doesn’t have nearly as much sizzle as the harrowing opening sequence would suggest and Buddy’s POV struggles to keep the focus during any given moment. Everything has a smoothness, including the parents who we can tell from brief asides have underlying communication issues that probably should be addressed, but you can still see they love each other.
“Belfast” is the type of warm-hearted crowd pleaser able to skate by on the strength of its cast and the jaunty nature of the story. It might not always seem the most elegant or special moviegoing experience akin to the family seeing “Chitty,” but you’ll leave with a big grin on your face, happy to have gone along for the ride.
BELFAST opens in theaters Friday, November 12th.