Directed By Kenneth Branagh
Starring – Jude Hill, Lewis McAskie, Caitriona Balfe
The Plot – nine-year-old boy, Buddy (Hill), must chart a path towards adulthood through a world that has suddenly turned upside down. His stable and loving community of Northern Ireland in the 1960’s, and everything he thought he understood about life is changed forever but joy, laughter, music and the formative magic of the movies remain.
Rated PG-13 for strong adult language and scenes involving violence
– Simplistic story. “Belfast” feels endearingly autobiographical for Brannagh. From the child’s eye perspective of his adolescent protagonist, weaving in and out of town affairs with the carelessness and ambiguity with interpreting matters, to the abundance of emotional heft that he supplants a very vulnerable and condemning predicament for these prideful people. This comes at the cost of a crumbling ruins of traditionalism and ideals that fleshes out the community with a rich-sense of lived-in history and familiarity, but here feels plagued to imprisonment as a result of this centuries old war of religious politics that has transformed the once idyllic serenity to a dangerous battlefield on the streets of where their children frequently play. Brannagh’s impeccable direction combines the innocence and imagination of childhood with a gut-wrenching sting of war that are cohesively maintained without sacrificing the levity of the former, or the stakes of the latter, giving this a tender and intimate enveloping that feels like the single most passionate direction from Brannagh’s storied career as a storyteller.
– Cinematic allure. For my money, it’s the combination of colorless cinematography from Haris Zambaloukos, and the intricate sound design rattling definition and intensity throughout, which gives the film a top class form of production that immerses itself seamlessly in the depths of the experience without feeling overtly flashy or distracting. On the former, the black and white seems to point as much to the ambiguity of understanding from a child living in an adult’s world, as much as it does channeling the hopelessness and despair in financial outlook from Belfast’s dreaded disposition. These colorless strokes are only suppressed with color during scenes of contemporary depiction at the beginning and end of the film, but also in these dreamlike sequences taking place at the movies, where no doubt much of Brannagh’s initial ambition and creativity began. As for the sound, the persistent consciousness of Buddy’s proximity lends itself to a choir of community voices and environmental static that coherently outlines the influence of the world persisting in and around him, and the foreboding dread of spontaneous riots illustrate an echoing ominousness of dread that is as foreboding as any horror movie you’ve ever seen.
– Tonal shifts. While most of the film’s storytelling device evolves as a coming-of-age drama, there are these pocketed moments of comedic release that keep the film from feeling like an insufferable experience of repetition. This not only led to several instances of palpable awkwardness and inappropriate interpretations for child characters understanding adult intentions, but also produced with it a naturalistic approach to the materializing that didn’t feel detectable or pandering in the concepts of the script. This made the periodic difficulty of hanging on to the thickness in accents all the more rewarding for the way their quirkiness and spontaneity fed into the element of their expressions, while further matching matters with an impeccable timing in deposits that rarely feels preconceived in the consistency of the banter between characters.
– Faithful casting. It isn’t enough that the movie’s gifted ensemble is decorated with a majority of Irish-bred actors and actresses to make the experience all the more honorable, but also that those very same actors hand in remarkable turns that should cement some Academy award recognition come awards season. There isn’t a single weakness in the bunch, but some of the best for me were from the captivating Judi Dench, the emotional thunderstorm of Caitriona Balfe, and the beaming precociousness of eleven-year-old Jude Hill at the forefront of this career making lead. On the subject of Hill, he’s very much up to the responsibility of gut-wrenching scenes involving a magnitude of expressions, but I find his caustic wit and cunning curiosity to serve the narrative tremendously well, especially considering the impact of his range in embodiment doesn’t feel detectable or premeditated in the form of off-screen influence puppeteering his strings every step of the way. On a side note, how often do you enjoy every single character in a film? That is the case here, as I found each of the arc’s to be equally intriguing and endearing to the integrity of the experience, allowing each of them to maintain freshness in the dividing of their time allowance, while never attaining any weaknesses that drifted my investment.
– Vandemonium. Legendary musician turned composer Van Morrison sinks his creative teeth once more into the promise of a compelling drama, this time as a result of a jazzy score and timely soundtrack that embody appropriate beats in the context of the scenes and sequences. Because so much of the music compliments the context of the imagery seamlessly, we’re treated to an engagement that fleshes out much of the expanding psychology of the characters dreaded dispositions, in turn producing some atmospheric range that prescribes no shortage of resonating influence because of such. Then there’s the song choices themselves, like “Everlasting Love” by Love Affair, or “How To Handle a Woman” by Richard Harris, which each incorporate an infectious energy and zaniness to the scenes they audibly decorate, especially when seen through newfound life that pertains to the situations and channeling that characters themselves enforce.
– Audible and visual gifts . There’s so much to unload about this particular aspect in the film, mainly the two sides of fictional and non-fictional appeal that outline layers to the many engagements. On the fictional side of things, the banter itself is enriched with personality and old-school ideals that not only provide hilarity when seen through the lens of contemporary eyes, but are also so easy to get lost in, when you consider the adults and children are interchangeable with their various one-liners and silliness to such boldly conflicting testimonies. On the non-fictional side, Brannagh unloads various fourth-wall breaks with visual cues and mentions that promote the ambition and influences of his childhood, like the visual of Buddy reading a Thor comic book, with us knowing that Brannagh directed the original introduction to the god of thunder. It’s a clever quirk that he’s able to articulate in the interests of the child protagonist, and one that longtime fans of his work will ably decipher as an autobiographical touch that makes aspects feel so personal for him.
– Vibrantly valuable shots. Enhancing the technical appeal even more for one of the best productions I’ve seen this year, is the cerebral compositions from Brannagh, which convey extensive meaning in each of their rendering. For some, that pertains to the cultural influence of Belfast itself permeating in the backgrounds of many intimate interactions as a living, breathing entity in the context of the characters. For others, it’s the detailed depictions of the various roadways, businesses, and apartment proximities, which fully flesh out the neighborhood with a three-dimensional outline that spans far beyond the reach of its framing, giving the audience intel into where everything is located, long before they’re woven back into frame. Speaking of framing, the interior sequences inside of the family’s household exude layering in the definition of their depictions, crafting slightly out of focus emphasis that persists in the background while characters in the foreground are hashing out an internal conflict. It prescribes plenty to keep our eyes continuously feasted on while exposition is smoothly delivered in the foreground, further casting emphasis on life’s continued progression that persists even during these world-halting instances of confrontation that feel world-ending.
– Civil unrest. The necessity of the religious arc between Catholics and Protestants was a pivotal one to the integrity of the time period depicted in the film’s titular setting, but the follow through execution resulted in more than a couple glaring instances of problematic exposition that dropped the ball on its influence. For starters, it only comes periodically in the 93 minute run time, creating an absence of weight and gravity that didn’t materialize as naturally as some of the coming-of-age elements of the script, and in turn isolating the film’s conflict in a way that didn’t articulate it as sharp or condemning as initially designed. Even the initial sequence itself that sets the stage for everything that follows, felt sharply rushed and clumsily rendered with respect to the magnitude of the threat, which feels so condensed and minimal inside of this tightly illustrated neighborhood where the citizens clearly outnumber the magnitude of the armies that stormed them, undercutting the tension in a way that makes it feel inferior to every other emotion attained naturally in interaction, and resolving matters (at least temporarily) a little too clean cut for authenticity.
– Strangely edited. There’s nothing that I would say is particularly bad about the way this story is constructed, but the frequent advancements of time frames littered casually throughout, created a disorienting haze that required more time and energy to coherently interpret than I would’ve preferred. Where this is a problem is mainly during the second act, where ambiguity in imagery, as well as cryptic character motivations feel a bit too casual to weigh heavily in the tonal or storytelling influence of the film, and instead create a jarring sense of reality that is occasionally a chore to simultaneously keep tabs on. I wholeheartedly understand why the film didn’t delve into material like the war on religion or politics that was swallowing the environment whole, as it’s not information that is typically privy towards adolescents, but the ambiguity in clarity for time creates an absence of urgency that downplays what little defined plot this film actually has, creating an unnecessary speed bump for transitions that leaves far too much in the past of the unexplored.
My Grade: 8/10 or A-