Belfast is a new semi-autobiographical film from director Kenneth Branagh, chronicling a young boy’s life during the Northern Ireland conflict, also known as “The Troubles,” during the late 1960s. Though this portrait of a loving family struggling to navigate a tumultuous time in their town has its moving moments, Belfast’s cumbersome pace and inner conflict amongst the characters gets lost in the larger meditation on the idea of where we call “home.”
By filming Belfast in black and white, Branagh tenderly reaches for the nostalgia of his youth, but it’s a mostly muted attempt to provide insight further than “this happened a while ago.” The film opens up on bright colors of present-day Belfast, Ireland, with establishing shots that look more like stock photos in motion. Contrasted with the black and white of the past, this is the only connection to what Belfast is today, and if you’re not from there, it’s difficult to pick up on the nuances of what Branagh is trying to say about how the past informs the present.
However, Branagh is able to reach a universal message on the definition of home, and perfectly captures the tug-of-war in wanting to stay where you come from, yet striving to leave for safety and better opportunities. The film is told from the perspective of Buddy (Jude Hill) as he tries to understand the greater world, balanced against the ethno-nationalist turmoil that has come to his neighborhood. Telling this story from a child’s eye is a catch-22, in that it works to simplify the larger politics of the conflict for audiences who might not know much about this time, but it’s also a bit too simply shown at the expense of stressing the importance of what actually happened.
Buddy is a wonderful protagonist, but the other internal conflicts between his parents, as well as the one between his father (Jamie Dornan) and local gang leader Billy (Colin Morgan), don’t get fleshed out enough because of how “on the outside” of it Buddy is. As a result, the audience is left to play catch up, and by the time we do, the film has already moved on to other matters.
Despite this, the film turns in great performances from not just Dornan and Hill, but also Caitriona Balfe as Buddy’s mother, Judie Dench as Granny, and Ciaran Hinds as Pop. One scene in particular between Dornan and Balfe is a true highlight, as the film takes a dance break, allowing us to see Ma and Pa let go of their issues and have some deserved fun together.
The cinematography from Haris Zambarloukos is another note of interest—there are some incredible shots throughout Belfast, including one in the first ten minutes that captures a street riot by rotating around Buddy’s reaction to the violence. Other shots utilize depth quite well, capturing the small, cramped size of Buddy’s home by strategically placing many characters on screen at once. This family might not have much, but by visually showing us this, it makes the family’s internal struggle about whether or not to leave their home and move to London all the more urgent and measurable.
Still, Belfast ends on a hollow note; we may understand and empathize with the family as they make some crucial decisions, but there’s no sense of what happens to the rest of the people in this time and place or what comes next for those who do or don’t leave what they love behind.
Belfast is now playing in select theaters. Watch the official trailer here.