Belfast – Ireland, the sixties and nostalgia as seen through the eyes of a little boy

MOVIE REVIEW – Belfast is the moving story of a boy’s childhood of love, laughter and loss amid the cultural and social turmoil of the late 1960s.



I’m not sure if there is another contemporary film director with the whiplash-like directorial career of Kenneth Branagh.

When the filmmaker and actor’s name comes up, it’s likely – and fortunately for him – that a string of Branagh’s acclaimed adaptations of Shakespeare come to mind: Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It, and the gigantic Hamlet. His less memorable film and role was the 2018 Theatre of the World, in which he played Shakespeare himself.

What you certainly don’t think of – at least I try to put it out of my own memory – is Kenneth Branagh, who tries to push an enormous amount of Hollywood trendy themes and most of those films are awfully mediocre. He’s made comic book movies (2011’s Thor), spy thrillers (2014’s Jack Ryan: Shadow Agent), live-action Disney remakes (2015′s Cinderella), Agatha Christie crime thrillers (2017’s Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile, out Thursday and even a YA Harry Potter knock-off (2020’s Artemis Fowl). All of them were utterly forgettable attempts or worse. Well, maybe not Artemis Fowl, which was so lousy it has to be seen to be believed.

So: who is Kenneth Branagh, the REAL film director? I think, and hope, that Belfast will answer that question.



The ‘smallest’ – yet most personal – movie is the best?


Branagh’s new film, shot during a pandemic, is one of his smaller-scale works and, paradoxically, his best film. The director’s story of his own childhood is set in the late 1960s in the titular Northern Irish capital. Belfast centres on nine-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill), who is interested in the following things, in order of importance: cinema, a cute girl in his class, chocolate, his parents (Jamie Dornan and Caitriona Balfe), his grandparents (Judi Dench and Ciaran Hinds), his brother Will (Lewis McAskie), and chocolate. However, all of Buddy’s innocent pursuits are put in jeopardy when his idyllic street turns into a battleground of rough-and-tumble religion and politics – especially when his Protestant parents take sides with their Catholic neighbours.

Belfast is further proof of the masterpieces that can be made by renowned directors who take personal journeys into the past. Sometimes they are everlasting masterpieces that use memories as a springboard for art that both celebrates and questions the past, such as Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma or François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. Or let’s not forget Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird and George Lucas’s American Graffiti. And then there’s the photo album kind of thing, like Jim Sheridan’s America.

Belfast, for its part, treads the canon of semi-autobiographical films, reminiscent of works such as John Boorman’s World War II coming-of-age film Hope is Glory, Taika Waititi’s Jojo Bunny. However, it should be quickly added that Branagh’s film is not so much a powerful or hard-hitting work – it is more a nostalgic reminiscence of the director’s childhood and his parents in the 1960s, which were tough enough for them.



Branagh didn’t screw up this time


Belfast is sweet without being syrupy, and sufficiently passionate without lapsing into dripping nostalgia. And the casting is spot on – the young boy Jude Hill is precocious without being forced, while his parents and grandparents Jamie Dornan, Caitriona Balfe, Jody Dench and Cirian Hinds are all great in their roles. (Interestingly, Dornan and Hinds were both born in Belfast, and Caitriona Balfe in Dublin, also in Ireland.) It seems that when Branagh talks about his own childhood, he doesn’t miss a beat, and his talent, which was evident in the Shakespeare films of his early career, is once again at the top.

The highly messy state of Ireland in the 1960s is also expertly portrayed: one or two scenes of stunningly stupid and crude clashes and riots between Protestants and Catholics are both choking and extremely saddening, and a great capper to the way religious fanaticism turns basically normal, ordinary people into hot-tempered, dangerous idiots.



It’s not flawless…


We must add that the film is not perfect, the director has made a few mistakes in his latest film. For example, the way Branagh oversimplifies the problems. Or the way Buddy (himself) is too clever for his age. Or the slightly showy trick of alternating between colour (all the films and plays Buddy sees at the local theatre) and black and white (Buddy’s real life). We can see what the poet meant (every movie is a miracle for the little boy), but the repeated ones are a bit forced.



Oscar guaranteed?


Belfast is one of Branagh’s best films and his big comeback, but I still feel that Oscar nomination is a bit strong. It’s a lovely, nostalgic childhood memoir that really does an excellent job of portraying the Irish city and the era in the sixties, but it’s not a period piece that we’ll still be talking about in ten years. If you don’t expect it to be, but you like arty, children’s period pieces in black and white, Keneth Branagh’s film is worth a chance.



Direction - 8.1
Actors - 8.2
Story - 8.1
Visuals/Music/Sounds - 8.2
Ambience - 8.5



Belfast is one of Branagh's best films and his big comeback, but I still feel that Oscar nomination is a bit strong. It's a lovely, nostalgic childhood memoir that really does an excellent job of portraying the Irish city and the era in the sixties, but it's not a period piece that we'll still be talking about in ten years. If you don't expect it to be, but you like arty, children's period pieces in black and white, Keneth Branagh's film is worth a chance.

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BadSector is a seasoned journalist for more than twenty years. He communicates in English, Hungarian and French. He worked for several gaming magazines - including the Hungarian GameStar, where he worked 8 years as editor. (For our office address, email and phone number check out our impressum)

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