It is not every day that a special movie like BELFAST comes along, a movie with enormous heart that reverberates not only through the film, but in the audience as you sit and take it all in. Written and directed by Kenneth Branagh, BELFAST is a love letter to the filmmaker’s hometown, but it is so much more than that. It is a tribute to his beloved family—parents that risked it all to secure a better life for Branagh and his brother, as well as family members that made the sacrifice to let their family members move on while they stayed behind.
BELFAST is the current Oscar frontrunner for Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actor/Actress, Original Screenplay, Cinematography, and pretty much every other award it is eligible for… and I can see why. I have seen the movie twice now, and each time I find something new to fall in love with about the film—from the incredible performances by the cast to the dazzling child’s-eye cinematography that gives the camera a life of its own, peeking around a family’s intimate moments and making it almost seem the audience is a fly on the wall. Cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos also uses flashes of colors in a surprising way to offset the film’s beautiful, crisp black and white.
But where the movie really hits its stride is in Branagh’s ability to balance the film’s tone between the gritty backdrop of civil war and the beautiful memories of his boyhood and nostalgia for that time. This makes for an utterly authentic depiction of a transformative period in his life.
BELFAST is based on Branagh’s own experience in 1969 Northern Ireland during The Troubles, a violent conflict between the Protestants and Catholics that primarily centered around whether Northern Ireland should remain under British rule. The story follows Buddy (Jude Hill), a 9-year-old boy who loves movies and has never known anything other than his close-knit family and neighborhood in Belfast, Northern Ireland. His Pa (Jamie Dornan) works in England and comes back to visit the family every two weeks, leaving most of the responsibility around the house to his Ma (Caitriona Balfe), Granny (Judi Dench), and Pop (Ciarán Hinds). But when violence arrives at the family’s door, resulting in barricades on their streets, riots, and molotov cocktails being thrown into windows, Ma and Pa begin to consider moving the family out of their beloved city to make a better life for the family.
Branagh began writing the film during the COVID-19 pandemic and the team quickly rallied to film the movie. “It came out of that silence that a lot of us stared into at the beginning of the lockdown and it certainly sent me back to this other lockdown we experienced where both ends of the street were barricaded. And you end up looking inward. I think a lot of us did this in the pandemic and separated from things that were so familiar to us that we took for granted, and particularly from people we took for granted. I wanted to shake hands with the 9-year-old kid and also try to understand what my parents had gone through,” he said in a Critics Choice press conference I attended in Los Angeles. Not only is it remarkable that this film got off the ground so quickly, but the fact it was filmed in the midst of another tumultuous period of history speaks to the generation-spanning relatability of the script.
At its heart, BELFAST is a character piece that is dependent on its cast, led by a 9-year-old (!!!), to tackle a variety of emotions and situations that range from humorous bits between a boy and his schoolgirl crush… to violence in the streets…and finally a feel-good song and dance number. This film lives and dies based on their collective performance and this ensemble cast shows they are the best of the year with amazing, effortless chemistry that only comes along in the most special of movies.
I will be shocked if anyone has a favorite scene other than Jamie Dornan singing “Everlasting Love” to Caitriona Balfe in a big band number at the end of the film. It comes at a period of time where Ma and Pa are struggling with their decision on whether or not to leave Belfast. But this scene alone shows that regardless of any disagreements, the love they have for each other will forever shine through. I literally could watch a 4 hour deep cut of this scene alone and I was lucky enough to attend the Belfast premiere and get to see Jamie Dornan perform “Everlasting Love” live and in person. Caitriona Balfe sang and danced along too with Jude Hill. Will I ever recover from this incident? Assuredly no. But I can at least say I lived the best part of the movie and I hope you enjoy the clip yourself below.
There is not much more I can say about a movie that perfectly captures a moment in time like BELFAST. And with a 90 minute runtime, the film never overstays its welcome. In fact, I was left wanting to know more about this amazing little family and to make sure they were okay in the end. This is one of those films I will always feel confident recommending to friends and family because how can anyone not like a movie with as much heart and warmth as this one?
My Review: A+