Review by Sean Boelman
Immediately heralded as a prime contender for top awards upon its festival debut earlier this fall, it’s understandable why Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast has been winning over audiences. It’s a crowd-pleasing, heartstring-pulling drama that is an excellent showcase for its cast of five excellent actors.
The film follows a young boy growing up in Belfast, Ireland in the late 1960s as his simple life is thrown awry by the onset of the Troubles. But even though the premise may imply otherwise, this is actually a really humble and quaint coming-of-age story, partially inspired by Branagh’s own experience in his youth.
For the first twenty minutes or so, the movie gets off to a bit of a shaky start, as it seems like it is trying to be something more than it is. But once the film sets into its rhythm and sets its sights on something less ambitious, it becomes extremely charming. And at ninety-eight minutes, it’s much shorter than most prestige dramas.
Branagh definitely isn’t very subtle with his script, using some pretty obvious imagery and dialogue to get his message across about empathy and acceptance. And the message is going to be palatable for white audiences, because it isn’t about an instance of discrimination that is particularly prominent today.
Perhaps most surprising about the movie is how well Branagh gets the audience invested in the story of this family. The set-up is a tad on the generic side — a father who is constantly away working forces the mother to basically raise the kids on her own — but it’s definitely compelling and relatable.
The biggest stars in the film are Judi Dench, Jamie Dornan, and Ciarán Hinds, all of whom are extremely impressive in their roles (especially Dornan, who proves he has outgrown Fifty Shades eye candy characters). But the people who really impress are Caitriona Balfe and Jude Hill. Balfe is extraordinary as the mother, giving a turn that just oozes authenticity. And Hill is surprisingly charming, especially given that this is his first acting appearance.
There are also some very strong technical elements in play here. The (mostly) black-and-white cinematography by Haris Zambarloukos is absolutely gorgeous, as is the score by Van Morrison. At a few points, it begins to feel as if the style is beginning to be a bit much, but it soon gets reined back in.
Belfast is a much more low-key movie than one would expect given that it is a passion project for Branagh, and it’s all the better for it. Although there are much more groundbreaking films to have come out this year, it’s certainly charming enough to get attention.
Belfast opens in theaters on November 12.