This statement will sound like a generality and is intentional, but in every Kenneth Branagh film I’ve seen, there is a child-like naivete that emerges; humor guided through the lens of experience. However, his stories also peer out of that same lens to offer a unique view of the worlds he invites us in to.
In Branagh’s latest film, “Belfast,” he takes us into the world of Belfast, Northern Ireland, circa the late 1960s during The Troubles in Belfast as told through the eyes of the rambunctious Buddy. Played by Jude Hill, Buddy is the youngest of the family. He’s a good kid, respectful to his parents (Caitriona Balfe and Jamie Dornan), playful with his older brother, Will (Lewis McAskie), and inquisitive with his Granny and Pop (Dame Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds) and doesn’t quite understand what the troubles are, remaining blissfully unaware at first.
Branagh and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos open the film in color, depicting a modern Belfast harbor and a downward pan transition to black and white, representing the story’s era. This technical achievement is but one example of Branagh’s brilliance as a storyteller.
There’s trouble brewing on the streets of Belfast as the labourers seek recompense, and Buddy’s family aims to keep their noses out of the trouble. Pa is off to work straight, honest jobs and is a bit of a gambler; Dornan plays the role with the force of someone who wants better for his family but is susceptible to the woes surrounding the family. Ma keeps the household together, and Balfe is magnificent as a steadfast mother and frustrated wife. Dench is a quiet force to be reckoned with as Granny. She spoils Buddy and keeps her ears peeled for the troubles, while Hinds is the guiding father figure for Buddy. He’s the type of ‘father figure’ who encourages Buddy’s wunderkind nature and sense of adventure while establishing limits to avoid enraging the local enforcer, Billy Clanton (Colin Morgan), who constantly confronts Buddy seeking his father’s contribution to the mob effort.
Of course, Buddy’s peers don’t help his cause as the youngsters try to find their own brand of rabble-rousing, notably Lara McDonnell’s Moira. Buddy knows better, but he goes on a journey, which eventually spills over into a mob scene. Branagh paints the kids’ point of view of the troubles in a limited fashion, but enough for the audience to understand what was brewing and the need for Buddy to remain inexperienced.
Branagh offers clues as to what’s going on in Buddy’s world, both in an expository way through a conversation and in a visual way, through characters listening in on conversations quietly peering through windows, a reflection on how Buddy perceives the world surrounding him. In an ode to Giuseppe Tornatore’s “Cinema Paradiso,” Buddy’s view of the world is presented through the movies, which Branagh uses to show Buddy a better world, something Pa is fighting for waging a familial war within the family. Branagh infuses the film with other cultural elements prevalent in the late 1960s. Still, these references are not from Buddy’s point of view but a part of his assimilation of a path toward a better future.
The story uses humor often to convey the dramatic situation; a significant portion of the humor is on the sly and is mainly at the hands of Dench and Hinds, both national and international treasures to the cinema, effectively allowing us to feel comfortable within their surroundings. Branagh uses Van Morrison’s music from the era to underpin the dramatic aspects, and it works flawlessly.
There’s been Best Picture talk for Branagh’s “Belfast.” For the sheer beauty of the innocence with which we experience “Belfast” through Buddy’s eyes set against the dramatic horrors surrounding Buddy and his family, coupled with the hope of a better future, the Oscar talk is accurate – “Belfast” is perhaps one of the finest films I’ve seen in 2021 and is now in theaters.