Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast premiered last night at Telluride Film Festival, and we were up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at 9 AM to see it at the second showing. Starring Jamie Dornan, Caitriona Balfe, Jude Hill, Judi Dench, and Ciarán Hinds, Belfast is the semi-autobiographical story of Kenneth Branagh’s childhood during the tumultuous 1960s.
Belfast opens with an upbeat and poppy song against images of Belfast, setting the scene for a very lively film. As we move from the intro to the beginning of the story, we see a transition from color to a black and white film, meandering through the streets of a small neighborhood in Belfast. As the camera weaves through the streets, it becomes very apparent how much of a personal and passionate story this is.
This camera work sets up these small streets of a Belfast neighborhood as a character on its own. When we finally settle on the main character, a young boy of maybe 8 years, Buddy (Jude Hill), this utopia of children playing in the streets, families laughing and waving to neighbors is abruptly interrupted by a riot of thugs coming to vandalize the houses of any Catholic families on the street. As Bobby struggles to make his way back to his mother (Caitriona Balfe), the camera work really demonstrates the disorientation of this situation and the marked change it has made in his neighborhood. As the family sees their idyllic piece of Ireland become something they can hardly recognize, Bobby’s father (Jamie Dornan) and mother must decide if they leave the streets they’ve known all their lives for a safer and new opportunity in England. This means Bobby must also leave his life, including his grandparents (Judie Dench and Ciarán Hinds) and his budding first love with a girl at school.
Newcomer Jude Hill exudes joy and captures the audience’s hearts in the first minutes of the film as he wields a trash can lid and makeshift sword as he battles dragons before the chaos. Caitriona Balfe takes an incredibly emotional role and nails it. She has tender loving moments with her children and husband and has to balance it with the harsh reality of life’s struggles with money, the violence invading her neighborhood, and accepting that her life in Belfast will never be what it once was. Jamie Dornan plays the adoring but concerned father as he struggles to stand strong in his convictions against the tyrants of the neighborhood, pressing him to join their ranks or suffer the consequences. Dame Judie Dench and Ciarán Hinds are perfect together. The love they share for one another and their families is reflected in Bobby’s admiration for them.
The juxtaposition of childhood joy and innocence against the backdrop of civil upheaval is where Belfast shines. It creates this ideal childhood filled with magic, play, and a loving family, but moments of violence, a marked change in the world he knows, and his peek into his parent’s struggles make Belfast wholly moving and emotionally gripping. The use of color in the film is one of my favorite things about the film. Their lives are in all black and white, but we get glimpses of color in films such as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and in A Christmas Carol’s stage production, emphasizing what an escape from reality cinema and art can be.
Belfast has set itself as an early Oscar contender. Its beautiful direction, cinematography, and touching story of family and love make it truly memorable and impactful. Belfast is as much a love letter to family as it is to the people of Belfast who stayed, who left, and who always carry it in their hearts.