Writer’s note: The second paragraph of this article (just below the first image) contains a basic outline of the film’s premise. There are no spoilers that weren’t already inferred in the film’s own trailer. However, if you want to completely avoid potential spoilers, skip over the second paragraph.
When you start writing film criticism, you’re constantly at war with two sides of your mind. On the one hand, you try to let the film wash over you so you can be as honest with your feelings as possible, but on the other hand you try to remain objective and rank the film purely on merit. As touched on in the review for The Power of the Dog (2021), a film can be an excellent cinematic artefact while completely failing to connect emotionally. Conversely, a film can be lacking in its production quality but could still strike a chord with the viewer. In the end, what really matters is how the film made you feel and what the reasons for that feeling are. In some cases, a film can connect with the viewer so deeply that it may be impossible to take an objective viewpoint. A critic’s job is to never let that happen, so if it does happen it better be for a damn good reason. As for me, I will freely admit that Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast (2021) has done this.
Set in Northern Ireland during The Troubles circa 1969, we are introduced to Buddy (Jude Hill), a nine year old boy in an Ulster Protestant family. While he is happily attending school, messing around with friends, and spending quality time with his grandparents, the streets are filled with violence. Radical Protestants are terrorising houses and businesses of Catholic citizens, creating a very tense environment for anyone not taking part in the conflict. Things get complicated when the radicals try to recruit Buddy’s father, known only to the audience as ‘Pa’ (Jamie Dornan). Even with continued harassment, Pa holds firm with his ideals and resists joining the fight. Instead, he has his eye on moving his family out of Belfast, which causes some tension between him and Buddy’s Ma (Caitríona Balfe). Not only would this move completely upend Buddy’s life, but it would also take him away from his beloved Granny and Pop (Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds).
The most obvious talking point is of course the film’s black and white colour palette, which is far more than just an old fashioned gimmick. This is a very personal story for Director Kenneth Branagh, as he actually was a 9 year old boy who grew up during The Troubles (the film is semi-autobiographical in this regard). The act of making this film is as if he’s going back in time into his own past, and black and white is an easy shorthand which communicates bygone eras, memories, the past and nostalgia. Another layer is revealed when you notice that the films Buddy watches in the cinema are in colour, meaning Buddy is literally using films as a means of escapism into a more colourful and less murky reality. This was probably how Branagh himself felt during that time and this is how he communicates it to us.
Additionally, the use of black and white colouring not only highlights the difference between murky reality and colourful fiction, but it also places the lines between good and evil into easily recognisable terms. The Troubles were a complex time with many shades of grey, so it was very difficult to know right from wrong despite many acts of violence being obviously reprehensible. By displaying this complicated time in this format, we can feel the murky shades of reality while also clearly seeing what is right and wrong. Thus the film makes it easy for us to want the characters to make the right choice, as we can see the moral decision through all the confusion.
While there’s plenty of heavy drama to be mined from all this, Belfast isn’t without a lightness of touch. Realism if cinematic storytelling is often misunderstood to mean “darkness”, but Belfast understands that it actually means “honesty”. Life can be dour, hard and unforgiving, but it can also be delightful, joyful and comforting. Through Buddy’s eyes, we are able to see optimism in the darkest of times, while also being allowed to see the harsher realities. It’s a difficult balancing act to pull off, because most of the dramatic material is completely out of the protagonist’s control or understanding. While that would usually result in a poorly motivated narrative, it’s put to fantastic use here as we understand how major decisions made by Ma and Pa will impact Buddy’s life. Therefore, we feel the emotion in these moments for Buddy, which is a wonderfully complex experience because we start wondering how memories of his childhood will evolve.
It’s these very concepts which build Belfast’s touching foundations, as we can feel Branagh’s longing for his beloved yet complicated childhood. More so than any of his previous films, Belfast gives us a sense of what makes the filmmaker tick. It’s one thing for storytellers to show us the events that made them who they are, but it’s a whole other thing for them to place us into their mind and soul. This is most evident in how Branagh brilliantly delivers the most heart-wrenching instances. Normally, sequences like these would elicit only tears, but Branagh somehow turns traditionally upsetting scenes into uplifting and life-affirming moments. We are given the opportunity to feel the moments of sadness, only to then enjoy the memories that were left behind.
With that in mind, Branagh not only connected us to the film’s internal narrative, but he also made us feel connected to our own past in the same way. Sure, not everyone would be able to relate to growing up in (and moving away from) The Troubles in Ireland, but many people can relate to moving for a better life. Once you remove the details, you begin to see that it’s simply a story about a mother and father deciding to escape from a dangerous place in order to raise their family without restrictions. This goal is complicated by the fact that their entire lives reside in this place, so not only would their children not understand and resist, but they would also be leaving so much behind (including loved ones). However, it is those same loved ones who are most encouraging for them to move and find a better future. Nearly everyone on the planet has experienced this in some form or another, so the fact that Branagh has created something so universal out of something so personal, is a triumph.
On that note, this is precisely the reason Belfast connected so deeply. While watching the story unfold all I was thinking was how I saw my parents have that discussion, I threw that childish tantrum when my father told us we were moving away and I had that exact goodbye hug with my grandparents while they assured my parents they were making the right choice. Sometimes a film just comes along that makes you evaluate your own past and emotions, even while you’re trying so hard to remain objective. Even if Belfast wasn’t a brilliant cinematic achievement it would’ve connected to me, so I am glad the film certainly earns its stars based on it’s own merits.
Best way to watch it: Before flicking through the photo album.