Kenneth Branagh’s new film “Belfast” is a little likable coming-of-age drama which looks into its hero’s small world with considerable affection and a bit of bittersweet nostalgia. While often recognizing the alarming social tumult surrounding him and many others in one little neighborhood of Belfast, Northern Ireland in 1969, the movie also has a number of intimate human moments to be cherished, and you can clearly sense how much Branagh cares about the story and characters, which are loosely based on his own childhood experience in Belfast during the 1960s.
During the opening sequence, the movie introduces to us a young boy named Buddy (Jude Hill), and we soon watch how his usual afternoon playtime with those neighborhood kids is suddenly interrupted by a bunch of Protestant rioters quite determined to wreck a havoc on many Catholic neighbors’ houses. Although he and his mother and older brother are mostly safe because they are a Protestant family, what is happening outside certainly disturbs them all, and his mother accordingly becomes more concerned about her boys’ welfare.
And then there comes a possible solution via her husband, who has been often absent due to his current job in England. Because he may have to spend much more time in England due to possible promotion, Buddy’s father suggests to his wife that the family should move together to England for safety as well as stability for all of them, but his wife cannot help but hesitate over this suggestion. Sure, England will probably be much safer in comparison, but she also has lots of doubts on whether they can actually leave behind their dear hometown and their family members and neighbors.
As Buddy’s mother and her husband conflict more with each other over this important matter, the situation in Belfast becomes more volatile day by day. As more TV reports about riots and demonstrations come, their neighborhood is soon guarded by not only vigilantes but also British soldiers sent into the city, and Buddy’s father finds himself often threatened by local Protestant thugs who demand that he should make a certain political choice sooner or later. As a decent good man, he does not like the increasing social/political conflict between his Catholic and Protestant neighbors at all, but being neutral is not an option at all if he and his family continue to live in Belfast.
In case of Buddy, this serious situation in Belfast is not much of a concern to him as his innocent mind is usually occupied with small matters of his. For example, he wants to get closer to a certain young girl in his elementary school class, so he tries his best for drawing more attention from that girl, though his supposedly clever strategy backfires later to our little amusement.
And there are also his paternal grandparents, who always welcome their grandson whenever he drops by their nearby house. Although they sometimes bicker with each other a bit, it goes without saying that Buddy’s grandparents still love and care about each other a lot, and there is a little sweet moment when they show their enduring love and understanding at one point.
Leisurely flowing from one episodic moment to another, Branagh’s screenplay steadily maintains its gentle overall tone, and he and his crew members including cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos did a commendable job of transferring us into Belfast in the late 1960s. Mostly shot in black and white film, the movie is filled with nice period details to be observed, and you may also appreciate how it occasionally bring colors back into the screen for accentuating Buddy’s growing fascination with stage plays and movies.
I must point out that the movie is somehow curiously distant as frequently observing its story and characters from the distance. As a matter of fact, it does not delve that deep into many of its main characters as often limiting itself within its young hero’s narrow viewpoint, but it still has lots of charms besides its authentic period atmosphere to be appreciated, and newcomer Jude Hill is quite likable as giving one of the most memorable child performances of this year. Whenever Buddy wields his lively spirit on the screen, we cannot help but smile for his unadorned cheerfulness, and Hill did a good job of bringing considerable life and personality to his role.
Several notable cast members revolving around Hill are also impressive while never overshadowing him at all. Caitríona Balfe, an Irish actress who has been mainly known for her performance in TV drama series “Outlander”, is terrific as Buddy’s struggling mother, and she and Jamie Dornan, who demonstrates here again that he is too good to be remembered only for “Fifty Shades of Grey” (2015), click well with each other especially during one key scene between them. In case of Judy Dench and Ciarán Hinds, they are dependable as usual, and Hinds is particularly touching when his character gives a sincere advice to Dornan’s character later in the story.
In conclusion, “Belfast”, which incidentally won the People’s Choice award when it was shown at the Toronto International Film Festival several months ago, is rather modest compared to Branagh’s more ambitious works such as “Henry V” (1989) or “Hamlet” (1996), but it is better than his recent middling commercial products including “Thor” (2011) and “Murder on the Orient Express” (2017). He is surely back in his element as going for something more personal, and I am glad for his humble but substantial achievement.