Kenneth Branagh describes the black and white drama BELFAST as his most personal film, although in the end it doesn’t reveal too much about how much of the story happened and what was changed for dramaturgical reasons. To what extent this is crucial for the quality of the film and which USA representative it reminded us of, we reveal in our review.
OT: Belfast (UK 2021)
Summer 1969 in the Northern Irish capital. Nine-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill), son of a typical working-class family, loves going to the cinema, Matchbox cars and his doting grandparents, as well as a crush on one of his classmates. But when the socio-political tensions in Belfast escalate and violence breaks out even in the otherwise harmonious neighborhood, his idyllic childhood comes to an abrupt end. And while his father, who works in England, and his worried mother try to secure the family’s future, Buddy has no choice but to slowly grow up – and still not lose his joy of life, his laughter and his imagination, which is inspired by films and television.
Director, screenwriter and actor Kenneth Branagh is seen in Hollywood as more of a craftsman and less of a filmmaker who wants to constantly realize himself. This doesn’t necessarily mean something bad; on the contrary. Branagh can adapt stylistically and directed films like “Thor” and “Cinderella” with just as experienced a hand as the two Agatha Christie remakes “Murder on the Orient Express” and “Death on the Nile”. Opinions differ about the quality of the latter films, but they are far from being considered outliers too far down in Branagh’s CV. His miserable adaptation of the young adult book series “Artemis Fowl” is completely different. From this point of view, it is hard to believe that the black-and-white drama “Belfast,” which was nominated for a total of seven Oscars (including in the premier category of “Best Film”), was created under the same supervision. Since Branagh repeatedly pointed out in the run-up to the cinema release that this was his most personal film – a statement that, for a craftsman like Branagh, suggests that this film is probably far more important to him than any of the previous commissioned works – this was the case but also to be expected. “Belfast” should be noted that here someone is talking about a world in which he is at least very familiar or has lived in it himself. Although it is never entirely clear what is fiction and what is a factual retelling.
The problems between his parents (Caitriona Balfe and Jamie Dornan) do not go unnoticed by their son.
It is said that “Belfast” is based on Kenneth Branagh’s childhood memories. In this respect, it is only logical that the story about young Buddy, who experiences an extremely sheltered childhood amid civil war-like conditions in his neighborhood, is told almost exclusively from his perspective. Nearly! Because there are always scenes in which the main character, played by newcomer Jude Hill in his first feature film role, is not even present. At this point it becomes clear at the latest: “Belfast” allows itself fictional insertions – or ones that Branagh did not experience first hand, but could only have received through stories. Such moments – for example when there is another argument between Buddy’s parents – primarily serve to give the characters in Buddy’s orbit an even stronger profile. And it succeeds: At first glance, “Belfast” is a film about a little boy who grows up between being intimidated by the events around him, uninhibitedly loving his parents and curious about the world, strongly reminiscent of the young Hape Kerkeling “The boy needs to get some fresh air.” But Branagh, who also wrote the screenplay, expands the narrative circle to include Buddy’s most important companions in life: his parents, his brother, his grandparents and a schoolmate he has his eye on. This cosmos is completed by one or two loose camaraderie with neighborhood boys and girls who sometimes want to seduce him into little pranks. Moments that produce some extremely funny moments.
“It is said that ‘Belfast’ is based on Kenneth Branagh’s childhood memories. In this respect, it is only logical that the story about young Buddy, who experiences an extremely sheltered childhood amid civil war-like conditions in his neighborhood, is told almost exclusively from his perspective.”
In general, “Belfast” as a whole benefits from the strict focus on Buddy’s childish eyes through which the audience experiences the events. This is exactly what makes the drama – despite its genre – seem far less dramatic than the premise suggests. Really harsh scenes of verbal threats of violence or even destruction when socio-political tensions escalate in the neighborhood only exist in the few scenes outside of Buddy’s perception. “Belfast” largely renounces political discourse. Everything shown here is subjective and emotionally colored. It’s not about treating the conflict historically, but rather telling about a childhood. And so the moments that are remembered afterwards are sometimes quite banal (as is the case when you, as a little boy, have completely different priorities and wishes than adults) – and yet no less enchanting. Above all, Buddy’s huge sympathy for his classmate Catherine (Olive Tennant) not only tickles something mischievous and mischievous out of Jude Hill, which again brings back memories of Julius Weckauf’s performance as the young Hape Kerkeling (you can even see a certain similarity between the two actors in their faces ). Especially in the interaction with Olive Tennant, there are some fantastic scenes of childish naivety that never goes away – even when the events come to a head towards the end and the children threaten to lose their innocence.
Granny (Judi Dench) watches the events outside her window with skepticism…
Buddy’s parents try to shield their sons as much as possible from everything that disturbs them in their sheltered upbringing. Nevertheless, fires continue to develop within the family’s own four walls – some larger, others smaller – which the two boys are very aware of. These scenes complete the portrait of the family as a whole, which is also supplemented by regular visits to the grandparents. Here, Branagh’s script expands the perception of what is happening to include another generation who view the political conflicts with almost stoic skepticism. Above all, Judi Dench (“Victoria & Abdul”) spreads wisdom (sometimes a little like a calendar saying) among people who trivialize the danger without denying it. It’s not just Branagh who makes the family’s cohesion tangible through his precise powers of observation. The cast also plays an important role in ensuring that “Belfast” makes a real impression despite its prefabricated roles and views. Jamie Dornan (“Barb and Star go to Vista Del Mar”) and Caitrione Balfe (“Le Mans 66 – Against Every Chance”) are a vibrant couple who love and support each other as passionately as they argue and who are united not only by their concern for their children, but above all by their deep bond with each other. It’s simply beautiful to watch this family spending time together. The cinema in particular is very important to her.
“It’s not just Branagh who makes the family cohesion tangible through his precise powers of observation. The cast also plays an important role in ensuring that ‘Belfast’ makes a real impression despite its prefabricated roles and views.”
Unfortunately, such observations never reach full scale. The regular visits to the cinema and, above all, the films shown on the screen play a major role for the main characters (and Branagh himself), so you can see the black and white dress in which “Belfast” is wrapped (camera: Haris Zambarloukos). , can be explained with both a desire for nostalgia and a homage to film history. But the creative emphasis like in “The Artist” or “La La Land” is missing, because these scenes don’t go beyond reveling in the cinema together and sharing a few anecdotes about what’s happening on the screen. These are not the only issues that get stuck in their approaches in “Belfast”. Kenneth Branagh tries to tell a lot in just 98 minutes of film without losing intimacy. He could have safely left out some of the subplot threads that frayed towards the end, because the main focus here is entirely on Buddy’s childhood anyway.
Conclusion: “Belfast” is a revel in childhood through the eyes of a little boy. The film does not intend to be an examination of the political dimensions of what is shown here. Instead, director and author Kenneth Branagh is about conveying an attitude to life. And to a large extent he succeeded.
“Belfast” can be seen in USA cinemas from February 24, 2022.