Starring: Jude hill, Caitrona Balfe, Jamie Dornan, Judi Dench, Ciarian Hines, and Lewis McAskie.
Directed By: Kenneth Branagh
Where I Watched It: Apple VOD
English Audio Description Available?: Yes
The Plot: A young boy (Hill) grows up in Belfast, Northern Ireland during a very tumultuous time in the history of the country, based largely on director Kenneth Branagh’s childhood experiences. At the forefront of this film is a multigenerational family living with their own struggles amidst an ever growing world around them.
What Works: You can tell that Branagh really is directing this extremely personal piece, because there’s so much crammed into a delightfully short running time. That can be both a good and a bad thing, as Belfast seems to want to take on the world, by maintaining itself is a passion project, a coming of age story, a historical ballad, a film with complicated questions that often go unanswered, and an attempt to be stylistically different to stand out in a very crowded pack of Oscar nominees.
The runtime alone should make this film accessible, as it runs a little over an hour and a half, which considering everything this tries to do, almost feels too short. But it also means every scene remaining that wasn’t cut has a purpose, and the film moves consistently forward. It never just sits and meditates, or has long moments where characters just sit and ponder. The film is quite vibrant at times, when it is trying to remind you that the technical protagonist of the story is a young boy, and the kinds of things he would prioritize, even in this atmosphere, would be different than the struggles the adults in his life are going through.
Branaugh does an excellent job of walking that fine line, keeping it at coming of age, and that’s why I said so many questions go seemingly unanswered, or underexplained, because the truth is that we don’t always tell children everything, or explain ourselves. Sometimes, things just are the way they are, and when you are that young, you don’t always see the bigger picture, even as a Molotov cocktail flies past your face.
Branagh had to rely heavily here on Jude Hill to carry this film. And he does some really great work for an actor his age. His acting is always reminiscent of a more youth oriented film, keeping his childlike demeanor intact, while the adults around him do all the heavy lifting with the tough subject matter. He’s not precocious to an unacceptable level, rather his maintained innocence and naivety are exactly what make Belfast work.
And the adult cast, in some ways, takes a backseat, relegated to having moments, rather than fully realized story components that would qualify any of the four main adults as the lead of the film. It’s always clear that Jude hill is the focus, going so far as to never actually give names to the adults, and refer to them as a child would. They are named based on what their relation to our lead, Buddy, would be. The exception being Buddy’s brother, Will (McAskie) who is given a name, but not much to do.
Caitrona Balfe is excellent, and there are two sides of the coin to her being snubbed by the Oscars this year. Is it a great performance? Yes. Is Judi Dench also great? Yes. Is this the best performance either of them have given? No. Truth be told, the Emmy voters have owed an award to Balfe now for quite sometime for her work on Outlander, and perhaps because I’m so familiar with her gut wrenching and incredibly demanding work in Outlander, I ended up being more sad that it is just one more time she’s not recognized, while realizing the main reason I wanted her to get a nomination is because she’s so damn underappreciated on Outlanderr.
Dench, for her part, has already reached max level, legend status. Everything she does is great. I can’t even say she was bad in Cats. I’m not sure if she’s ever been bad, and an argument could be made that every time she hits the screen, it’s technically award worthy, much like Meryl Streep and her 18 nominations. So i understand her nomination, because I didn’t think both would be nominated, and I think most of the push for Balfe is more of her being overdue for something, than specifically this film, even though she’s great.
On the boys side, while i’ve warmed up to Jamie Dornan, realizing that he’s so much more than Christian Grey, and has far more range, he is actually blown out by Hines, whose obviously near the end grandfather just adds so much more in every scene he’s in. If there was a “straight man” in the cast, it would be Dornan, giving a largely necessary, but thankless performance. It’s Hines who has those heartbreaking moments you’ll remember long after. it’s a well deserved nomination, and also a long time coming for a character actor with as deep of a resume as his.
What Doesn’t Work: Like i said, the film does try to do a lot, and it does so in a relatively short period of time, and with an accessible rating. So, if you were expecting something hard into the revolution at the time, that’s not the focus of this story. So the question isn’t about whether or not the film does or doesn’t work across the board, but rather whether or not it would work for you, and that depends on what you expect from this film.
I’ve noticed this film doesn’t have quite as high of critic scores as I might have expected, and those critics likely expected a darker film. This is not that. This is very much told from a child’s perspective, and would very much fall under coming of age before anything else.
My biggest gripe with the film, is that while the four adults and young Jude hill are all given things to do, poor Lewis McAskie as the brother Will seems to have no purpose in the film. I know he’s the older brother, and sometimes brothers don’t always get along, but there’s really not a lot of that dynamic here. He’s present, but takes a clear backseat in terms of his contribution to the story. If will didn’t exist, I’m not sure the film would have changed at all. I’m not sure this film puts nearly enough emphasis on his character, the brothers relationship, or Will as an individual to make him relevant to the story. If this family had one child, the film would still have the same impact, and that shouldn’t be true.
Also, while I appreciate the decision to bombard us with American culture in a film called Belfast, it’s a bit much when the film also uses a lot of American pop songs of the time to underscore what’s going on. Was there no culture in Northern Ireland? Moreover, wouldn’t they have watched any programming coming out of the BBC other than news? Everything they watch on TV, aside from news, is American. The film they go to the cinema for is American. The songs played are American. I’m sure he had a reason for doing all of that, but it just made me wonder if this country had any artistic culture of it’s own, or rather, why it wasn’t watching any content from the BBC?
The Blind Perspective: I’m fairly certain the audio description failed to mention the film is in black and white, which might seem odd, because later in the film when they go to see the stage play, we are told the stage play is in color, which is an odd statement unless you knew what was playing was black and white the whole time. in general, I was disappointed by the audio description, which has plenty of quiet moments to fill, and doesn’t. It frequently misses transitions in location, leaving you wondering where exactly you are, and having to scramble to catch up. The narrator’s voice is very calm and she reads what is given to her very well, but this film is definitely underdescribed.
Final Thoughts: I really appreciate this love letter that Branagh has crafted here. Jude Hill is a welcome addition to the pantheon of excellent child actors, and the four adults are fantastic. From what I can tell, every single nomination it has is earned. While I didn’t directly talk about things like the screenplay, it’s very clear that Branagh put a lot of heart into this. It’s his most personal work ever, and it pulses in every frame. I have my small quibbles, but Belfast is a film that deserves to be watched, and one that will be remembered. Moreover, in a year of a lot of dark and depressing fare, Belfast is mostly optimistic, ending on. A rather poignant, yet hopeful note, and that alone somehow felt refreshing in this day and age.
Final Grade: A