When it comes to award season, there are a few films that make their way into the majority of nomination fields and acquire a high number of Oscar nominations. Kenneth Branagh’s autobiographical drama, Belfast is one of those films this year and follows Branagh’s experience as a child in the titular city during the late 1960s when The Troubles began. The film focuses on protagonist, Buddy (Jude Hill), based on Branagh himself, and the period in his life when Protestant loyalists begin to target the homes and businesses of the Catholics on Buddy’s street. We see Buddy in all aspects of his life, but mostly the time that he spends with his Ma (Caitríona Balfe), Pa (Jamie Dornan), Granny (Judi Dench), and Pop (Ciarán Hinds) as the political turmoil in Ireland begins to grow increasingly dangerous and resulting in a potential move to England to escape. It’s a unique look at a tragic period of time through the eyes of a child, so we see The Troubles in glimpses and glances.
The film is both written and directed by Kenneth Branagh, and it is clear from the offset that this is his most personal project to date as we are introduced to a montage of present-day Belfast before we are transported to the same area in the past in black and white. The film is undoubtedly autobiographical, but Branagh chose to change names and even calls the protagonist, Buddy, who is based on himself. The screenplay is written from Buddy’s perspective as a young boy, meaning that the audience is provided with snippets of the real life chaos that was taking place. This serves to hinder and serve the film as on one hand, it provides a unique perspective on the topic while also meaning that we are not introduced to the full threats that were drawing closer and closer if the film had a more generalised viewpoint.
Despite the long list of stars in Belfast’s line-up, the cast is actually led by newcomer Jude Hill who plays protagonist, Buddy. It could be understandable for a newcomer, even more so a nine-year-old, to be intimidated by a slew of stars as well as Branagh, but Hill takes it all in his stride. From the moment he appears onscreen, it’s clear that the film is in safe hands as he is deeply entertaining while maintaining the innocence to the political conflict that is happening around him. The opening scene in which we see the Protestant militants attacking the Catholic homes on his street perfectly demonstrates the end of innocence as Buddy has to deal with the real-life problems that he and his family face, especially as his Pa is increasingly pressured to join the Protestants in their fight. Despite the problems going on around him, Buddy is just like any other child and has his interests, mainly his love for films and there are scenes dotted through the film of his trips to the cinema, which is clearly drawn from Branagh’s own love for cinema and Belfast is clearly a love letter to his childhood and the place that helped him to develop this passion.
There is an abundance of supporting characters in the film and one of the best performances goes to Caitríona Balfe who is magnificent as Buddy’s mother. There is a lot of unspoken characterisation to “Ma” and Balfe brings this forth perfectly. Buddy idolizes his father who works away for long periods of time while his mother has to run the household and raise Buddy and his brother, while simultaneously dealing with the political conflicts going on. There are glimpses of her struggles as Buddy listens in on her desperate calls to her husband while he is working, and we see her facade begin to crack as she has to remain strong for her boys. What makes Balfe’s performance so brilliant is how resonant and relatable it is and the fact that she has been snubbed in the Best Supporting Actress category at the Oscars is one of the biggest snubs, especially since Judi Dench’s performance doesn’t have the same level of impact.
When it comes to the supporting male actors, the best performance easily goes to Ciarán Hinds who portrays Buddy’s grandfather, “Pop”. His performance is the perfect example of a small role that has huge influence over the film and its storyline. From his first scene through to his health deterioration, Pop is the foundation of Buddy’s family and acts as Buddy’s father-in-lieu when his father is working away in England. Hinds is charming and lovable as Pop, serving as Buddy’s life coach when the latter is unsure how to approach a girl he likes in class while also providing plenty of wisdom during the turbulent times by helping Buddy to understand what is going on around him. Hinds’ final scene is by far the highlight of the film as this is when the story is brought to its emotional climax and the family foundation is broken and begins to fall apart, reflecting the surrounding society.
Belfast is sure to be a crowd-pleaser and shows a different side to Branagh’s creative output that we haven’t really seen from him before, while also giving him the chance to be vulnerable as a filmmaker. It may not always pack the punch that it wants to, but there are some really beautiful scenes and with Balfe and Hinds’ exceptional performances, Belfast is a film that definitely deserves a watch.
What did you think of Belfast? Let me know in the comments below!