‘BELFAST’ Review: Should I Stay or Should I Go?

The awards season finally feels as though it has arrived, and Kenneth Branagh’s “Belfast” is a home run that takes an endearing look into a family during The Troubles in the 1960s. While the film takes place six decades ago, it feels relevant today as it proposes the idea of fleeing your home to go to another country in favor of better opportunities. Kenneth Branagh should be applauded and rewarded for an amazing film.

“The worst things in the world are justified by belief,” a line from “Raised by Wolves,” a song about The Troubles.

The Troubles were a tumultuous time for Ireland; you had the Protestants vs. the Catholics in a battle that lasted for decades. The black-and-white palette of the film is a great aesthetic look, but it also is a great representation of the melodramatic stances taken by the two sides. Both sides see it as a battle of “good” and “evil,” and resort to violent confrontations and slandering of the other side in their church services. One character, who is Protestant, dumbs down the idea of confessing in the Catholic church to having “water thrown on them” and being forgiven. Each side sees the other as pure evil, and that type of conflict still exists. This point is driven home by Branagh, as characters in the film are shown watching Westerns numerous times throughout the film. There is even a very clear homage to Westerns in a confrontation between Pa (Jamie Dorman) Billy Clanton (Colin Morgan).

Jude Hill stars as Buddy in director Kenneth Branagh’s “Belfast,” a Focus Features release. Credit: Rob Youngson / Focus Features

The film’s perspective is that of Buddy (Jude Hill), a young boy that trades his imaginary battles with fire-breathing dragons for real people throwing fire in the streets of Belfast. Buddy’s worldview is comparable to that of Jojo inJojo Rabbit,” where he is still learning to think for himself and is mainly shaped by what he hears on the radio; family members; and other townspeople. It’s an example of the “rose-colored lens” that you hear about in rhetoric classes. A metaphor of a fork in the road is contemplated by Buddy throughout as he decides what side is “good” and “bad.” Buddy is the heart and soul of the film, and his innocence is radiant. Hill is sweet and authentic in his portrayal of Buddy, as seen in his puppy love for classmate Catherine (Oliver Tennant) and his reaction to having the idea of moving out of Belfast being proposed to him. Belfast is Buddy’s entire world, it’s all he has ever known.

Jude Hill is great, but the whole ensemble is made up of world-class actors that all wow in “Belfast.” Jamie Dornan has never been better, and perhaps that is because he has never been given such amazing direction; Jude Dench wasn’t even recognizable in the film as Granny, Buddy’s grandmother. Ciarán Hinds plays Pop, Buddy’s grandfather, and the relationship between Buddy and his grandparents is the sweetest part of the entire film.

Judi Dench as Granny, Jude Hill as Buddy, and Ciarán Hinds as Pop in director Kenneth Branagh’s “Belfast,” a Focus Features release. Credit: Rob Youngson / Focus Features

Another notable stylistic choice made by Branagh is to have all art in the film in color. “Belfast” is a mainly black-and-white film with the exception of the opening sequence of the city of Belfast in the present-day and scenes featuring art. Whether it’s a play or a film on the television, these are shown in full color (unless the film was also in black-and-white). Perhaps art was Branagh’s escape as a kid, and the films and plays in the film capture the attention of Buddy. It’s not clear how much of “Belfast” is based on Branagh’s life, but these scenes could have been a love letter to cinema and the performance arts.

At just 98 minutes, “Belfast” does a brilliant job of telling complete stories and wrapping them all up in a neat bow. There is closure on every arc, even Buddy’s puppy love story. The awards season still has a long way to go, but Branagh is set up for success with “Belfast.” It’ll make you laugh; cry; and everything in between. Make this film a priority to see when it receives its wide release.

Grade: A

“Belfast” opens on November 12.

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