It’s August 1969, Belfast, Northern Ireland. A mother calls for her son, Buddy, because it is time for tea. The camera follows the sound of her voice through the street they call home. It’s a street where generation after generations have lived. Everyone know each other. everyone looks out for each other. A teenage girl runs to a neighboring street where a group of young kids are playing knights, complete with with trash can lids for shields and makeshift wooden swords. One of these kids is Buddy, and when alerted that his mother wants him, joyously leaves the game and skips home.
He makes it a few feet from his doorstep when the screen erupts in fire from a Molotov cocktail being thrown against the wall. Soon, one end of the street, one of the main entrances to the neighborhood, is filled with angry young men. Some holding clubs and bats, others throwing rocks. They yell threats to the Catholic families to get out of their Protestant Northern Ireland.
The mother has to go out to her shell-shocked son and rescue him. The trash can lid becomes a real shield as Buddy’s mother uses it to protect her and her son from the rocks bouncing off it. She bring her her son in, goes out to get his older brother, and brings him in the house and out of the chaos. She shoves them under a table as a car explodes outside their window. They could hide out until the danger is over.
This might seem like I’m giving away most of Kenneth Branagh’s semi-autobiographical Belfast. I’m not. All the above events play out over the first few minutes of the film, in one seemingly uninterrupted shot. It informs the audience that the film will be a look at the way life goes on when unspeakable violence rears its ugly head. All directed with all the skill and craft of a master director.
The events of the film are seen through they eyes of Buddy (Jude Hill) as he deals with the threat of violence from The Troubles while also dealing with adolescent problems such how to get the cute girl in his math class to notice him. While this is going on, he spies on the main conflict of the film between his Pa (Jamie Dornan), who knows that if they stay in Belfast life will never be safe for his sons, and his Ma (Caitriona Balfe), who refuses to leave her family and the only home she has ever known.
The film is definitely a “FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION” film. It wears its desires for an Oscar on its sleeve. Branagh brings out all the tricks in his directorial handbook in the film, almost screaming for the Best Director Oscar. It would be shameful if Branagh, who also wrote the film, didn’t use these tricks so well. The narrative is choppy, presented like the flow of memories brought out by looking at photos in an album. Many of the scenes are framed as if they were picture postcards, telling their stories in the most beautiful way possible. This allows the film to provide us with more plot than would normally fit in a 97 minute film yet in a way that never seems boring.
And while that “choppy” description might sound like an insult, it’s not. It is a fascinating narrative technique. Branagh is too much of a professional to not make his characters multi-faceted and the story engaging. You will fall in love with these characters, and you’ll go through the film hoping the go through the very grim odds and end up on top.
Branagh is aided considerably by first rate acting. And yes, I am including the 2016 Golden Raspberry Award winner for Worst Actor Jamie Dornan in that assessment. He does a sterling job as the absentee father (he works in London to make money for his family, and only gets to see them on weekends) who loves his family and who is morally strong enough to do the right thing when the time comes. It would be hilarious to see Dornan get an acting Oscar to keep that Razzie on his mantle company, and it’s a definite possibility.
But if Dornan gets nominated for this film, it should be Best Supporting. Because if anyone should be nominated for Best Actor for this film, it should be Jude Hill. He dominates the screen time, acts as the stand-in for the audience, and has to play an incredibly wide range of emotions and feeling. Personally, I was impressed by the way he pulled his performance off. He never fell into the precocious child actor style that many actors his age would have. The Academy seems reticent to give out nominations, let alone awards, to child actors, but I feel Hill’s performance deserves both.
And Balfe has the best chance of anyone of actually winning an Oscar. She has the meaty role of being the glue that holds the family together. But her strength in raising two sons alone acts in contrast of her fear of leaving Belfast , even to protect them. It’s a complicated role and Balfe masters it.
Of course, Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds do their usually excellent work as well as Buddy’s grandparents. Hinds was especially strong as Buddy’s guiding male influence.
It does appear that Belfast will be on the list of Oscar favorites when March of 2022 rolls around. But whether it wins anything or not doesn’t take away that it is a very powerful film: heart-breaking and humorous, inventive and engaging. It is one of the best films I have seen, and you should go out of your way to see this special film as well.