Like a lot of people, when I saw the first trailer for Kenneth Branagh’s latest historical drama, Belfast, it reminded me of Roma (2018) but in a different setting.
Fortunately, outside of the time period, black-and-white cinematography, and a powerful riot sequence, there actually isn’t much in common with the two films.
Branagh’s new movie has been making the rounds on the festival circuit and critics circles to positive reactions, and now general audiences can see it this month.
Loosely based on the filmmaker’s own childhood in Belfast, and featuring songs mostly of fellow Northern Irishman Van Morrison, we are taken back to a moment in history that justly deserves some exposure.
In late 1969, tensions are high in the modest family communities of Belfast. It has reached the point where the neighborhood residents have to hide and lock up when Catholic and Protestant gangs take to the streets to riot and attack.
One of these neighborhood corners is where 8-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill), older brother Will (Lewis McAskie) and their, parents known simply as “Ma” (Caitríona Balfe) and “Pa” (Jamie Dornan), reside.
Pa is away a lot on weekdays for work, and thinks it might be time to move everyone away from the violence. Ma is reluctant as she’s lived in the same area her whole life, while Buddy also disagrees with leaving his school friends and local relatives.
Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds co-star as Buddy’s grandparents and Colin Morgan appears as an antagonistic peer of Pa’s.
I’ve seen a few critics complain that the aesthetics of Branagh’s use of black-and-white plus shades of color at times is uninspired. I really didn’t mind the visuals though, as I think they fit how simple and quaint the issues are.
Branagh makes a decent attempt to not take sides or come across biased toward one of the two Christian groups. He portrays both sets of gangs as violent and prejudiced against each other.
Interestingly, he chooses to have both parents estranged from any religious or cultural identity, leaving Dench’s Granny as the big believer in the family.
Hill’s lead debut is filled with many wide-eyed reactions of shock or awe and not much else. But fortunately, he also manages not to be the so-common obnoxious kid on screen.
For Americans who weren’t alive when the “The Troubles” began in Northern Ireland, Belfast is a fresh and interesting take on a scary moment in time. It also doubles as a whimsical family-friendly drama.