Belfast (2021)

Kenneth Branagh | 1hr 38min

There is a fluidity to the vignettes of Kenneth Branagh’s memoir in Belfast, reflecting on a tumultuous period of Irish history that set the scene for his own coming-of-age. After opening with a colourful montage of the modern city’s industrial sites, he gently nudges us into a black-and-white memory piece of childhood games, bible-thumping preachers, and political riots, gliding gracefully down the streets in superbly blocked long takes. Nine-year-old Buddy is the stand-in for Branagh here, who moves from one lackadaisical tableaux to the next, punctuating his story with bursts of violence from the 1969 Northern Ireland riots. 

It is a loose narrative that Branagh constructs here, prioritising character above all else in building out a close family of working-class Protestants reluctant to involve themselves with the escalating protests. Besides Buddy’s older brother, Will, the rest are given no other names then Ma, Pa, Granny, and Pop, their complex identities filtered through the bright eyes of a child. The long, static takes that Branagh employs to capture shots of the family layered across compositions evokes Alfonso Cuaron’s own touching memory piece, Roma, soaking its tight-knit communities within an air of nostalgia, though tinged with a bitter sadness. Through doorways and windows, Branagh shoots Buddy’s family in secluded frames, dealing with issues the boy can barely comprehend. More than anything though, it is the warmth and care they all hold towards each other that emerges in tender scenes of dancing, watching movies, and nights out at the theatre, through this lively ensemble affectionately invites us into their spirited dynamic.

A dedication to tableaux like these, layering the frame through doorways and windows to create evocative memories from Buddy’s perspective.
Strong performances all throughout this ensemble – so much chemistry between every family member as they dance and play together.

Every now and again Branagh will also let through bursts of colour, transcending Buddy’s black-and-white memories with vivid renderings of his imagination. When watching a play of A Christmas Carol with his family, the golden lights of the stage pierce the monochrome darkness within the audience, bouncing off Granny’s glasses like sparks of wonder. Later, Buddy sits in front of his family’s television and gazes at the awe-inspiring Technicolor of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, swept away by its visual majesty. 

A wonderfully formal use of colour in this largely black-and-white film.

But also included among Belfast’s many cultural and artistic references are two classic Hollywood westerns, both appearing in their original black-and-white. The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and High Noon are the texts used here, captivating Buddy’s mind in a more thoughtful, considered manner than those other colourful pieces of entertainment. Just as questions of duty and honour test our heroes in both those westerns, so too does Pa face similar trials in Buddy’s world, frequently coming up against local demagogue Billy Clanton, one of the riot leaders. “The Ballad of High Noon” makes more than one appearance here, poignantly underscoring Pa’s reckoning of his own loyalties and identity like so many classical heroes before him.

Branagh’s framing of Jamie Dornan setting him up as a classical hero in Buddy’s eyes, much like those Western gunslingers and sheriffs with strong moral codes.

Moving parallel to Pa’s arc is Buddy’s own pre-pubescent development, defined by his desire to find some sort of recognition and belonging among his own peers. After attempting to steal chocolates from a lolly shop and refusing to dob in his accomplices, he finds acceptance in a secret group, though much like his father this ultimately leads to a nuanced re-assessment of his own values. Tough choices are made between conforming to group ideals versus holding fast to one’s integrity, though it is in such adverse circumstances where character is forged, and eventually Buddy is set on a path to becoming the noble man he sees in his father. The personal self-reflections of Branagh’s own childhood that float through Belfast endows this story with a certain level of authenticity, but it is also the emotional nuance that he finds through his elegant camerawork and staging that fully consumes us in young Buddy’s journey, giving endless thanks to those who planted seeds of growth within such inhospitable environments.

Belfast is currently playing in theatres.

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