Written and directed by Kenneth Branagh, BELFAST (2021) is a heartfelt coming of age story about the meaning of home in times of turmoil. I liked it a lot despite its flaws, notably Branagh periodically overplaying his directing chops.
Lovingly shot in black and white, the film, apparently based roughly on Branagh’s childhood in the northern Irish city of Belfast, is about a nine-year-old boy named Buddy who lives with his working class family. (For this, BELFAST feels a bit like Branagh’s answer to Alfonso Cuarón’s also-excellent ROMA.) Through Buddy’s eyes, we see the Troubles starting with August 1969 riot, where nationalists and unionists clashed on the streets.
As the civil strife increases and the British Army moves in, life becomes more and more precarious and Buddy, trying to live a happy childhood, faces the prospect of having to leave. Belfast is home for him, where he has friends and everybody knows and loves him. But as Belfast is becoming increasingly unsafe, he learns his real home is with his family.
As far as family drama goes, everything is here: beautiful cinematography, rousing music of the era, lovable characters played by stellar actors, and love and death. The storytelling is by turns humorous and heartfelt and menacing, and one can see how personal this work was to Branagh, particularly when the only moments in color are films and plays Buddy watches, which offer an escape from his life’s challenges and we know will become a life’s passion for him.
The only trick is this is a story told through largely through a nine-year-old’s eyes, and what we see sometimes feels a bit too much childlike. This sets up the unionists as stock villains with a final showdown that was a bit out there for me. For the real story of the Troubles, there are many historical sources that reveal exactly what a big mess it all was.
Overall, BELFAST is good stuff, its art a bit over baked and its personification of the era a bit too simplistic, but solid drama nonetheless, pulled by terrific characters and acting.