'Belfast' Film Review: Kenneth Branagh Crafts a Rich, Moving Memory Piece

Toronto 2021: Jamie Dornan and Caitriona Balfe star in a movie that bursts with life as it explores a pivotal moment in the director’s own childhood

Toronto International Film Festival

AWARDS BEAT

Film directors have been exploring their own childhood memories on screen for decades, and the honor roll of notable films that have come from that exploration ranges from Francois Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows” to George Lucas’ “American Graffiti,” from Louis Malle’s “Au Revoir les Enfants” to Cameron Crowe’s “Almost Famous,” Mike Mills’ “20th Century Women” to Lee Isaac Chung’s “Minari,” from John Boorman’s “Hope and Glory” to Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma.” Writer-director-actor Kenneth Branagh has now tried his hand at the genre, and to say that “Belfast” brings out the best in him would be an understatement.

Visually stunning, emotionally wrenching and gloriously human, “Belfast” takes one short period from Branagh’s life and finds in it a coming-of-age story, a portrait of a city fracturing in an instant and a profoundly moving lament for what’s been lost during decades of strife in his homeland of Northern Ireland. Plus it’s funny as hell – because if anybody knows how to laugh in the face of tragedy, it’s the Irish.

The film, a Focus Features release, came to the Toronto International Film Festival on Sunday evening for what was originally supposed to have been its world premiere. At least that’s how it was announced when TIFF revealed its slate of films in August – but suddenly it slipped into the lineup for last week’s Telluride Film Festival, which stole a premiere that would have been one of Toronto’s biggest gets this year.

Still, the TIFF screening had the feel of an event, as much as any screening could in this year of smaller industry attendance and socially distanced crowds. Roy Thomson Hall was about as full as it gets this year, and Branagh got a big ovation when he and star Jamie Dornan introduced the film and he talked about the Belfast neighborhood he was trying to honor with his movie.

“We laughed a lot about dark things, and we held each other when we cried about serious things,” he said. “And then, as they say, things changed.”

That change happens very early in “Belfast.” The film opens with panoramic, full-color shots of the city today, but then it sinks over a wall and into a black-and-white street scene from 1969, with kids playing and adults shouting in a scene of bustling life that seems too bustling and too perfect – except that this is the memory of 9-year-old Buddy (newcomer Jude Hill), so of course some after-school street football seems like an unfettered delight.

But then, with shocking suddenness, the street is filled with angry men shouting, breaking windows and blowing up cars; it’s chaotic and confusing to Buddy, and so it is to us, too. There’s no context, no explanation of the Northern Ireland riots of August 1969 – it’s just Protestants trying to drive Catholics out of a community where, Buddy’s dad insists, “There is no our side and their side in this neighborhood.”

Except that now there are sides in the neighborhood, and Buddy’s family – Protestants who have no beef with the Catholics who live around them, except that they think the whole idea of going to confession and being forgiven is weird – are pressured to take a side.

On one level, the film is about a family torn between staying in the home they know and fleeing for the sake of the kids. Dornan plays the father who is forced to travel to England on work for weeks at a time, Caitríona Balfe is the mother who raises the kids in his absence and never appears less than radiant in Buddy’s eyes, and they’re both pitch perfect. Meanwhile, Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds play the grandparents with a quiet virtuosity that summons up a lifetime of shared history in the smallest gesture or the simplest line. And as Buddy, Hill not only looks like what you think Branagh probably looked like at that age, he’s the most watchable person on the screen even when he’s sharing it with stars and legends.  

The family’s dilemma could easily consume the film’s crisp 97-minute running time, but one of the pleasures of “Belfast” is the way it shows life going on even with barbed wire and barricades at the end of the block. Buddy may be worried about his parents moving the family to England or Australia (or the moon, for that matter), but he’s just as concerned with impressing the cute girl at school. The movie bursts with life, with jokes and threats and tragedy and comedy all mixed up into an occasionally sentimental but irresistibly moving blend – and it also bursts with a love for movies themselves, as the family makes regular trips to the local cinema to see “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” or “One Million Years B.C.,” and as Buddy and his brother sneak peaks at “High Noon” and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” on the TV.  

When the family goes to the movies, the images we see on that screen are in full color, as if they somehow felt more vibrant than day-to-day life. But in truth, the black-and-white cinematography from Branagh’s longtime D.P. Haris Zambarloukos is so rich and beautiful that even Raquel Welch in a doe-skin bikini (from “One Million Years B.C.”) pales by comparison.

  

The sound is equally stunning. You may have soured on Van Morrison as his anti-vax sentiments have made his new music unlistenable (I certainly have), but in his voice is the soul of Northern Ireland, and his contributions to “Belfast” are essential. He wrote one new song for the opening credits and supplied a number of other songs that are used throughout the film – not the ’60s numbers you might expect in a movie set in this era, but ’70s and ’80s songs that feel emotionally right even if they’re from another time. (When I hear Van sing “Carrickfergus” or “And the Healing Has Begun,” I stop caring about his cockamamie COVID rants.) Morrison also wrote saxophone-based instrumentals that serve as the film’s score, and they’re lovely and haunting.

There are times when “Belfast” meanders, times when it flirts with melodrama, times when it makes abrupt tonal jumps: a funeral one moment, dad singing the ’60s hit “Everlasting Love” the next. But boredom is part of childhood, and so is melodrama, and life takes weird twists. The film feels true in the way it must be exploring Branagh’s memories of a tumultuous and confusing time, and the way it pays tribute to a vibrant community as that community is irrevocably changed.

Branagh began writing the script early in the pandemic and then shot it under strict COVID protocols, but nothing about “Belfast” feels rushed or compromised. After a decade of mostly directing genre exercises with varying degrees of success, from “Thor” to “Cinderella” to “Murder on the Orient Express” to “Artemis Fowl,” he has made a film that feels as if the emotional stakes are high. And the payoff is even higher.       

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