Everyone’s Irish on St. Patrick’s Day just as everyone is the same according to “Belfast” (2021). Perhaps that’s why the film won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2021.
Since then, the National Board of Review ranked “Belfast” as one of the best films of the year. The fan favorite was also named Outstanding British Film at the BAFTAs and received the Critics’ Choice Movie Award for Best Acting Ensemble this past weekend.
More comedy than drama, the coming-of-age dramedy stars Jude Hill, Critics’ Choice Movie Award winner for Best Young Performer. He plays Buddy, a nine-year-old Irish Protestant living in Belfast in 1969. The character is born from the boyhood of Kenneth Branagh, who co-produced, directed and wrote the film, for which he scored a Golden Globe Award for Best Screenplay.
With seven Academy Award nominations, including Best Director and Best Original Screenplay, Branagh proves he’s a masterful filmmaker. Unlike his hammy-handed “Hamlet” (1996), he wisely remains off screen and uses his stage sense to let the “Belfast” cast peer out from the background of Jim Clay’s sets. The deft direction also allows time for visual punchlines, even when they occur outside of the frame.
Primarily shot in black-and-white, Branagh’s Oscar-nominated semi-biopic has the monochromatic look of Alfonso Cuarón’s Oscar-nominated semi-biopic “Roma” (2018) and the feel of John Boorman’s Oscar-nominated semi-biopic “Hope and Glory” (1987) which takes place during the London Blitz of the early 1940s.
“Belfast” begins nearly 30 years later with Protestant loyalists attacking the homes and businesses owned by Buddy’s Catholic neighbors. Thanks to the cinematography by Haris Zambarloukos, the boy’s world is literally turned around from a peaceful playground to a danger zone as the riot marks the start of Northern Ireland’s 30-year conflict known as the Troubles.
While the opening scene is violent, the film proceeds in a less intense way, focusing more on the daily nuances of Buddy’s life. He takes advice from his grandfather (Oscar nominee Ciarán Hinds) on how to do better in math and woo a Catholic girl (Olive Tennant) in class. He dreads church and the tripe his granny (Oscar nominee Judi Dench) serves. And tries to shoplift candy with his cousin (Lara McDonnell), who humorously tells him how to differentiate Protestants from Catholics.
Buddy and his elder brother (Lewis McAskie) are tempted to join a gang but their seemingly single mother (Caitriona Balfe) makes sure they toe the line. She holds the family together as the mostly-absent patriarch (Jamie Dornan) works in England, where he’s been offered a promotion that includes a house with two indoor bathrooms!
Considering their financial problems, plus the growing violence and unemployment in Belfast, it seems a no-brainer the family take the offer and leave Ireland. But a move means they’ll lose their cultural community; a quandary also faced in Barry Levinson’s Oscar-nominated semi-biopic “Avalon” (1990).
Because young Buddy is based on budding actor Branagh, the boy is enchanted by the magic of movies. Unlike his grey reality, “the pictures” are represented in color as they’re enjoyed by him and his family on the big screen. In addition to tipping its hat to the film’s titular city, “Belfast” gives a nod to the social and almost antiquated act of going to the cinema.
Ironically, it’s the influence of this vibrant medium that has Buddy interpreting conflict in black and white; seeing heroes versus villains. So, when another riot breaks out on his street later in the film, it’s depicted in a theatrical way where good wins over evil. Luckily, Buddy’s story has a triumphant climax, yet it’s not without a few casualties.
By showing the specifics of one child’s life at a certain place and time in history, “Belfast” taps into the universal connection everyone feels for home and family. Although not everyone is really Irish on St. Pat’s Day, humankind is alike everyday in that we all seek safety, love, and laughter.
“Belfast” is rated PG-13 and is highly recommended. It can be seen in theaters and on various streaming platforms.
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