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‘Belfast’ Review: An Evocative, Sober Exploration of Family Struggles

Dir. Kenneth Branagh — 4 Stars

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When Kenneth Branagh, the director best known for a slew of 1990s Shakespeare adaptations, delivers a black-and-white film set in 1960s Northern Ireland, one could be forgiven if they expect a high-brow historical drama. But in “Belfast,” Branagh takes audiences on a trip down memory lane. Not unlike Cuarón’s “Roma,” Branagh’s film tells a touching, unabashedly human story of eerily normal family struggles in the midst of nightmarish circumstances.

“Belfast,” a semi-autobiographical drama set in the eponymous Northern Irish capital in 1969 and 1970, chronicles the struggles of a working class, Protestant family living in a Catholic neighborhood. During The Troubles, a period of sectarian and nationalist conflict, such living arrangements proved tenuous. Today, the question of Northern Ireland remains delicate, with renewed tensions in light of Brexit.

Fortunately, though the black-and-white picture is told from the Unionist perspective (corresponding with most Protestant views) of Buddy (Jude Hill) and his parents (Caitríona Balfe and Jamie Dornan), it represents the complex conflict in all shades of grey. Branagh isn’t afraid to use sharp juxtaposition to get this point across. For instance, an on-screen assertion that Catholicism is a religion of fear quickly cuts to a Protestant pastor beginning a frenzied sermon by saying “Protestants, you will die.” Neighborly prejudice is juxtaposed against neighborly kindness. And instead of placing the blame squarely on the Catholics, the film also depicts the violent Protestant mobs escalating conflict in the city.

Branagh’s portrayal of violence, however, is much less successful. While nostalgic, “Belfast” is by no means a film that looks at the past through rose-tinted glasses. But unlike films such as “In the Name of the Father,” which depicted a world where violence was so commonplace that people had to learn to live with it, Branagh’s picture begins on August 15, 1969, just the second day of violent clashes in the city, and the second day of the 30-year-long presence of the British Army. And yet instead of showing the impact of the sudden outbreak of violence on the film’s characters, the neighbors seem unfazed as they erect barricades.

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That being said, emphasizing normalcy in the face of violence helps the film create sympathetic characters. Despite the grim reality of the times, Branagh’s “Belfast” is at its best when it allows audiences to feel emotionally attached in protagonists’ everyday struggles.

At first, the black-and-white might reinforce a sense of disconnect. But somehow, it does the opposite: Explosions are less flashy without reds and yellows. And without color, the historically accurate sets are given short shrift. More importantly, pairing the film’s colorlessness with the relative brightness of the monochromatic palette highlights the character’s emotions and body language, making for a more immersive experience and almost forcing the viewer to sympathize.

Furthermore, the film goes out of its way to make its black-and-white setting more familiar through its frequent references to the past. Even though “Belfast” is set in 1960s and 70s Northern Ireland, “Star Trek” is playing in the living room, jokes about Westerns with Raquel Welch and Buddy’s trips to cinema with the obligatory cup of soda and a bag of popcorn go a long way toward making the setting much more relatable.

The performances play a key role in highlighting Branagh’s focus on human emotion. Hill endows his protagonist with unparalleled innocence and affability. His face expresses the frustration and the confusion with the murky rules of the adult world one would expect from an actual child. He brings a sweet awkwardness to his character’s relationship with his school sweetheart Catherine (Olive Tennant). Hill is unhindered by his lack of experience, the only obstacle being the script’s occasionally stilted dialogue.

The film’s supporting characters also do a good job: Judy Dench’s talent is not wasted, and she has the chance to shine with her trademark witticisms. Even more stunning is Caitríona Balfe’s depiction of Buddy’s mother. Afforded the most difficult task by far, with scenes ranging from an emotional breakdown to dealing with mobsters and a hostage situation, Balfe more than delivers and is responsible for some of the film’s dramatic highlights.

Branagh’s bold pursuit of his vision pays off. “Belfast” is a consistently convincing, engrossing family story that successfully asserts itself against the film’s nightmarish reality.

—Staff writer Zachary J. Lech can be reached at zachary.lech@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @zacharylech.

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