Take a cautious step into Kenneth Branagh’s mind, and it might not be all that out of reason to find his desire to slow down, share a more personal story. After a decade of grandiose fare, much of it belonging to a particular IP, carrying a high budget and often mixed results (I’m looking at you, Artemis Fowl), his latest allows for a moment of overdue repose, through the intimate lens of his own rocky childhood. Growing up could never be considered an easy tryst after the events of Belfast, a dry yet heartfelt dramedy with a semi-biographical spin whose nature is as pure as its morality. The latter is a necessary evil, keeping its historical backdrop from overshadowing the root of its tale: a family on the brink of turmoil.
The agony’s all around them, it’s 1969 in Northern Island, and an otherwise sleepy working class town has suddenly reached a fracas. A neighborhood once peaceful in its habitation by both Protestant and Catholic residents, now at complete odds with each other. Placed in the middle, a suburban family just striving to get by. Buddy (Jude Hill) is the son with budding intellect, and a high sense of creativity. Mindful of the future, but loyal to his community with a bit of a renegade streak. His Pa (Jamie Dornan) is the definitive journeyman with a lengthy commute to and from work. Ma (Catriona Balfe) tries to maintain a loose shred of domesticity while the outside world slowly falls apart. When they’re not battling, there are wild block parties by day, air raid lights by night. The parents know it better than their kid: they’re living in the middle of a war, and they are uncertain about wanting to stay or moving to London with the hope of improved financial and emotional stability.
Branagh, in his own words, vision, and timbre, does not overlook a single detail in capturing that prevalent uncertainty for future historical record. Granted, it may not query enough in the vein of accuracy for events, beyond establishing a finite ambience bordered by hazy storefronts and overly bright lighting. With his regular collaborator Harris Zambarloukos once again handling all camera choices, its time period is encapsulated with the occasional flirts of a dingy Irish noir. Only the time of day is powerful enough in this clean, bleak palette to differentiate memories both pleasant and painful. Very much mirroring the frame of mind creatives like Payne or Spielberg could effectively pull off before.
While Ma and Pa feign with their fracturing, segregating neighborhood, observing the tide of change as grizzled revolutionary Billy Clanton (a pleasingly amped Colin Morgan) calls it, Buddy’s optimism slices through. With a mild side of confusion, no less, walking around the streets to find controlled rioting, thievery, and complicated math equations boggling his troubled mind. A window of thought only mellowed by prospects of an innocent schoolyard crush, a love for performance art, and confiding in the well-versed lives of Granny (Judi Dench) and Pop (Ciaran Hinds), one whose wisdom speaks heavy volumes while the other is dancing with their own mortality.
With Buddy’s perspective standing, running persistently in front, Hill is a legitimate trooper. His character’s wide eyed confidence toward the world challenged by cynical trauma before his eyes. No, he can’t quite play the fighter so much as he does stride through the “passive medium” role, looking on while at least attempting a normal life. Even his hypnotic smile when looking on at the charms of a cinema screen (one of the only times color is utilized) is on point to remind himself and those around him not to look back on trouble, but face it without fear. That much guides Branagh’s persistence to express heightened melodrama amid such a tense backdrop, skating but not jumping too far into territory usually breached on some prestige cable series with the level of exposition to match. With how fleeting these episodic memories pass by, it was important to keep eyes on that screen at all times. To affirm not just a brisk pace (not advisable when backstory is utilized), but the ethereal presence of Van Morrison’s melodious snapshots of life’s foibles. Almost unexpectedly, Belfast’s musical prodigal son has a song for just about any occasion, often capturing hardship and triumph, blameless and guilt, often in one go. Mixed with the work of other artists, he’s curated one of the year’s most repeatable soundtracks.
Meanwhile, Branagh’s genial, kind approach lands well on reflexive footing to benefit not just Hill, but his supporting players. All of whom lend their unique aptitudes, fulfilling all intended nuances. Dench, especially, a pillar of resolve as she faces the rest of her family leaving her to duke out the conflict solo. She may be the grandmother we all aspired to have, a figure of solace and dry banter, unafraid while silently discordant. Her chemistry with Hinds is a delight in itself, the knowledgeable one-time physical laborer whose thirst for life could only be mirrored by his son. And Dornan owns that moment of passing the torch, balancing a lively life-of-the-party demeanor with strict blue-collar ideology. Continuing a string of character portrayals where his light, comic knack pushes deep (Barb & Star, and Wild Mountain Thyme, to name two), Dornan steadily merges his strengths, both his serious and almost-silly sides breaching with aplomb.
It’s Miss Balfe, however, who potentially brings in the strongest adult performance among this splintered clan. A calm face countered by a voice of impeding rage, Ma means business. She wants to escape, she can’t imagine raising her family amid the throes of war, and when pulled into it herself, her protectiveness reaches total desperation. Seeing Ma’s anguish even in the subtlest of mannerisms left me provoked with chills throughout. While it may be Buddy’s story first, Ma riding copilot would’ve been of major help, with her perspective appearing just as valid to the pursuit of rediscovering personal freedom.
And for Branagh as a captain having dipped his toes into the Hollywood system, the reward of a slower swim values out to having regained certain directorial freedoms, the kind we thought lost forever after his Shakespearean efforts, most recently 2018’s All is True. Mild shortcuts notwithstanding to generate consistency with its emotional heart, his filmmaking candor has returned in full force. As the persistent trials of his fictional family express themselves so openly, Belfast opens as a sanguine love letter to home, to overcoming the worst of growing up. Where it ends is far more impactful, as its director achieves another stage of coming-of-age in the present day. Nowhere near perfect in its execution, but tender in its sense of affection. And if that aspect reaches one’s emotional core around the same way it did mine, the endeavor will have been more than worth the commitment. (A-; 4/5 Horns Up!)
Belfast opens in key area theaters this weekend; rated PG-13 for some violence and strong language; 98 minutes.