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TIFF 2021 Review: Belfast – “One of the best films of the year”

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Image Courtesy of TIFF

“For the ones who stayed. For the ones that left. And to all the ones who were lost.”

Such is the dedication for Belfast, the newest film from director Kenneth Branagh.  After an opening sequence showing parts of the modern city in vivid colour, we travel back to 1969 and the picture fades to black and white.  Though that doesn’t mean what follows is any less striking.

As the camera pans onto a busy street in the Northern Ireland city, we meet Buddy (Jude Hill), a young boy fending off imaginary dragons with his round, metal rubbish bin lid.  But moments later, as his Ma (Caitriona Balfe) is calling him in for tea, rioters appear on the street and that lid becomes a real-life shield as she protects herself and her son from the violence that quickly erupts.

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It’s the Catholics living on their street that have been targeted, but that doesn’t mean that this Protestant family is safe.  Buddy’s pa (Jamie Dornan) is away working in England, returning only every 2 weeks, unable to offer much physical protection.  The local gang is looking for support in either “cash or commitment.” Then there is the threat also of some unpaid back taxes that may still tear the family apart, even if the violence doesn’t.  Buddy is navigating his young life now amongst the presence of barricades, tanks, and soldiers, even as he tries to win over a young girl in his class.  His grandparents (played with sincerity and tenderness by both Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds) offer advice and encouragement, while producing an extra coin for sweeties every so often.  Buddy also finds comfort in his frequent trips to the cinema with his family as the world around him changes in incomprehensible ways.

Belfast is clearly a personal work for Branagh, who was born in the city, and that closeness to his source material also means it’s some of his best.  The script is full of comical lines (“The Irish were born for leaving.  Otherwise the rest of the world would have no pubs.”) and poignancy.  Behind the camera Branagh coaxes an exceptional performance from young Jude Hill, an important factor considering the entire film is from the boy’s point of view.  Despite the vast majority of the film, save for a few moments, being in black and white, Belfast never feels as if it’s lacking depth or warmth.  Working with cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos (a frequent Branagh collaborator) the film is remarkably beautiful, even if it occasionally overuses an upward camera angle to emphasize perspective.

Branagh also leans heavily on his soundtrack, (provided by Belfast native Van Morrison – a little controversial these days) almost to a fault. I could have used a little more silence and contemplation in some places.  But regardless of my personal nitpicking, I still consider Belfast one of the best films of the year, and I have a feeling Oscar will also.  It’s a crowd pleasing, emotional film filled with nostalgia, unexpected humour, and remarkable performances.  It’s also an ode to classic cinema (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is still running through my head), and a reminder of the importance of family.  If home is where the heart is, then it’s clear Branagh’s is Belfast.  With this film, he’s created a charming and memorable love letter to the idea of home, no matter where you consider that to be.

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