Belfast is a Heartfelt Love Letter to a Time and Place

Belfast is a film that feels so idiosyncratic to its director, Kenneth Branagh, that it had to be personally experienced in real life, making the film feel so personal to its creator. A heartfelt, crowd-pleaser that conveys such an endearing love for a time, place, and people. A joyous story that celebrates people doing their best amid any circumstance. The connection between the family and their neighbors is pure, showing a world where we’re not defined by the worst aspects, but find the good in life. Guaranteed to leave a smile on each audience member’s face.

Branagh matched his vision of childhood to the screen and the script is open-ended, letting the actors fully explore the characters and pull out tangible people. The Branagh screenplay is filled with unbelievable truisms and one-liners that make a rather simple script feel important. It’s one family at one time in their life, nothing more than that on paper, but the childlike perspective of Buddy (Jude Hill) and emphasis on the wonder in the world makes it feel monumental. The appreciation Branagh has for his childhood is shown in the craft and makes the film that much more special.

“And if you can’t be good, be careful”

Furthermore, the casting was almost perfect. Pop (Ciaran Hinds) and Ma (Caitriona Balfe) stole the show, stealing away so many scenes with amazing delivery of the emotional moments. Their presence is infectious and all the other performances pick up as well when one or the other is included. Jamie Dornan as Pa gives a meaningful fatherly performance, but it’s his moments with Balfe where the two shine. The character scenes are brief, making each line that much more important from an acting standpoint, and the actors make us feel that in the performance. The brilliant one-liners are delivered proudly as if all the actors feel that connection to Belfast.

As for the Branagh craft, it can feel a bit artificial with how certain action sequences play out, and the street side production design looks stagey, but it has a self-contained style that shows Belfast for what it was, rather than idealized the place. The Haris Zambarloukos cinematography has many interesting shots, many dollies of a crowded city, wider compositions allowing for more actors in the frame, telling a larger story, while keeping the camera focused on individual characters. The black-and-white painting a picture of what Branagh witnessed at the cinema or theater in his childhood. The rare use of color expresses an appreciation for these influences on his life, including High Noon, Who Shot Liberty Valance, and of course, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I loved hearing Tex Ritter’s incredible High Noon theme in a 2021 theater speaker system.

High energy, basic storytelling that paints a picture of a time and place. When you feel the love on each frame, it makes the filmmaking that much better. Branagh channels his boyhood curiosity and wonder of the world into Belfast and makes one beyond meaningful experience. And for what it’s worth, my mother, who I saw the film with at an AMC in Spokane, WA adored the film and the spirit imbedded within.

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