Do you remember what it is that you loved about movies? Why you crave them, and savoir them and remember them for most of your life? This is one of those films that answers those questions. It takes us to another time, it plops us down in another place, and it tells a story that we didn’t know but feels so real that it could be a memory rather than a film. Kenneth Branagh has brought us that movie, and those of you who have forgotten over the years, what he is capable of should get ready to embrace the past and recognize his talent again. This is a film that will remind you that Branagh is a writer/director of enormous ability. That he has not cast himself in the film is not a reflection on the difficulty of wearing three hats on the set, but rather an acknowledgement that the talent you need should fit the story you are telling, and he knows that.
Some critics use the phrase crowd pleaser” as a pejorative, as if the audience is irrelevant to the art. There is a school of thought that embraces this kind of view and makes ambiguous, dense and unpleasant films the sort of film that deserves praise. There are times when we want to be challenged like that, but we also go to the movies to be entertained, enlightened, and have our emotions manipulated in a way that we feel grateful for. “Belfast” is that kind of picture, one that embraces the people who see it rather than sneering at them. This is a film that you walk out of feeling thankful for having seen, rather than angry about what you have seen.
Set in 1969, as the troubles in Northern Ireland are bubbling up, Belfast tells the story of a family struggling to live life in the way most of us would like life to be lived. We want neighbors who know us and help out in tough times, we want our families to be safe from bullies of all sorts, we want to enjoy the pleasures of family life that have been built by our parents, and we don’t resent the others in the neighborhood who worship differently than us or come from backgrounds dissimilar to our own. The family in this story defiantly lives the life they want in the face of political upheaval and violence. The young boy at the center of the story loves his parents and is discovering that the world does not necessarily work the way it should. There are many dramatic moments in the film that will challenge the protagonists, but in the end, it is family that trumps all and that is a good moral for a story, (as long as we are talking about a family like this).
Caitríona Balfe, Judi Dench, Jamie Dornan, Ciarán Hinds, and newcomer Jude Hill are terrific as the members of the family striving to cope with the turmoil caused by the political upheaval, economic times and personal transitions they all must face. I think Hill’s Buddy is a completely believable little boy and his relationship with his grandparents is the sentimental heart of the film. Hinds has been great in a lot of movies but his part here is more elaborate and complete then anything I have seen him in before and it is a great performance because of the connection he creates with Buddy. Dornan creates a much more interesting character here than in the Fifty Shades franchise he starred in. Caitríona Balfe plays the intransigent Ma, who loves her neighborhood almost as much as she loves her family, and is loathe to leave it when opportunities for security present themselves. She could have been unsympathetic but instead the part is written in a way to make her resistance feel honorable rather than pig headed.
The film is filled with great emotional moments, that are often reflected in the movies and TV shows that the two boys in the family share. The father is almost like Will Kane from “High Noon” or Jimmy Stewart from “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”. Buddy is motivated to be better by the prodding of his mother, the crush he has on the Catholic girl in his class, and the science fiction shows he watches on TV. If this is indeed a semi-autobiographic film, Branagh gives us some good hints as to the sorts of influences he was subjected to as a child, and they turn out to be pretty good.
If you hear any discouraging words about this film, I hope you will ignore them. It may not be perfect from the perspective a a cinema snob, but it is exactly what a mature audience with a desire to be entertained should be looking for. Don’t let any of those looking down on a middle brow film, stop you from taking in a great picture that will do wonders for both your heart and your love of movies.