Courtesy of TKBC; Northern Ireland Screen

December 1, 2021

Kenneth Branagh’s ‘Belfast’ Almost Hits the Mark

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Belfast details the life of a working-class family in Ireland during the tumultuous ’60s. It portrays long-entrenched conflicts between Catholics and Protestants all through the eyes of a young boy, Buddy (Jude Hill). What emerges, is a dressed-up version of a typical coming-of-age movie.

At the beginning, Belfast is captivating. The movie mainly portrays the quaint neighborhood Buddy’s family resides in. The accents are charming, the outfits are sharp and the music is soulful. As the movie progresses, the cadence of family life becomes a little too redundant. Viewers watch Buddy go to school, go to the picture show, say goodbye to his father, and so on. The camera lingers a little too long on the same sets: the strip Buddy’s family lives on, the schoolyard, and the movie theater. The redundancy renders the movie more tame. Only through snippets of news or arguments between Pa (Jamie Dornan) and Ma (Caitriona Balfe) do viewers get the sense that things aren’t quite right.

The most enthralling part of the movie comes at the very beginning when Protestant radicals descend on Buddy’s Catholic neighborhood—abruptly changing the tone from innocent to bloodthirsty. That is the biggest hint of the broader conflict between Protestants and Catholics the movie lends viewers. From then on, the conflict fades behind the quotidian cadence of life in Belfast, and the movie becomes less dazzling. 

Belfast mimics Roma, Kenneth Branagh’s other work, in its black and white tint, its capture of the everyday, and its cinematography. However, Belfast lacks Roma’s complexity. This is in large part due to the fact that the film follows the point of view of a young boy, who has hardly begun to make sense of the happenings around him.

While the film’s point of view makes it heartwarming, it is also limiting. Viewers’ knowledge is limited to Buddy’s knowledge, and this can be frustrating. To my dismay, the conflicts playing out on the outskirts of Buddy’s neighborhood hardly become more jarring through Buddy’s eyes.

That being said, the film’s point of view also makes it shine. Viewers get endearing glances of childhood. We watch Buddy fumble to make sense of the complex world he lives in, including the religion his family loosely practices. We watch Buddy struggle to get the attention of the girl he likes.

Buddy emerges as the true star of Belfast, with Pa and Ma appearing noticeably duller. Pa and Ma are much more one-dimensional. Ma seems to be in a constant state of aggravation, and Pa is nearly always even-keeled. Buddy, in contrast, is beguiling. His wide blue eyes and pure facial expressions capture viewers. His easy sense of humor is enchanting. He adds levity to a severe situation.

Belfast’s strength comes from it being a coming-of-age movie, not a time-and-place movie. It fails to fully encapsulate the tumultuous ’60s in Ireland or the struggles of a working-class and evoking nostalgia for childhood.

Lena Thakor is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].