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'Belfast' tells heartfelt tale of family, perseverance in 1960s Northern Ireland

Kenneth Branagh’s "Belfast" depicts a moving story of chasing dreams, cherishing family and the power of perseverance. – Photo by Belfast / Twitter

From his Hollywood-centric films such as "Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit," "Thor," "Cinderella" and his most infamous work, "Artemis Fowl," to his creative, Shakespearean adaptations of "Hamlet," "Henry V" and "Much Ado About Nothing," director Kenneth Branagh’s filmography has a wide range.

But his latest release, "Belfast," stands out as being neither a passion project nor a Hollywood movie. It’s a personal story and a profound one at that. "Belfast" takes the audience back to August 1969, during an ethnic conflict between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland known as "the Troubles."

While Belfast is the sprawling capital city of Northern Ireland, the story is mostly contained within a small Catholic-majority neighborhood that is targeted by a violent Protestant mob. A young boy named Buddy, played by Jude Hill, tries to live a normal childhood in the middle of a warzone, while his family struggles to find safety as the violence escalates.

As a 9-year-old, Buddy is a cheerful, optimistic boy with wild aspirations and fantasies. His personality hits the familiar beats of other child actors, but he doesn't come across as artificially whimsical. He’s not a precious little kid who constantly says cute and charming things only to elicit collective "aww's" from the audience.

Rather, he has an indelible curiosity that sometimes translates into a strong naïvete, which leads him to some trouble a few times in the film, but ultimately makes him an inherently funny character. 

The characters who are the real highlight in this film have to be the parents and grandparents, namely Buddy's mother and grandmother, played by Caitriona Balfe and Judi Dench, respectively. Buddy’s father, played by Jamie Dorman, has a less prominent role than the mother, but that doesn’t make him irrelevant in the story.

Buddy’s mother is a disciplinarian, strict due to the high risk of being out in the streets of Belfast. And like many grandfathers, Buddy’s grandpa wants to encourage him to dream big, which helps take his mind off the conflict. In addition, Dench's role as a kind and nurturing figure helps develop Buddy into an emotionally mature child. 

I love the family unit as a whole, and even got a little teary-eyed near the ending due to how beautiful it was. You truly get the feeling that these people really do love each other, and you want to see them live a happy life together. Everyone's performances were phenomenal and I expect an Oscar nomination for Dench’s performance as the grandmother.

Hill did a great job acting as an authentic child, rather than a kid reciting lines from a script. It's a rarity to see child actors nail their performances as well as Hill did.

Most of "Belfast" is shot in black and white, with the exception of the very beginning when there's an establishing shot of a modern-day Belfast. Sometimes, when a film in color is shown, the color is maintained so that the world outside of the screen remains in black and white. This is a clever visual effect implemented throughout the film that further evokes the theme of escapism. 

The cinematography in the film is also strong, with some great uses of lighting and depth. While the sequences are mostly shot within a household environment, the film effectively builds the three-dimensionality of the environment by deploying techniques like deep focus, in which everything from close up to far away has full clarity.

It also helps that some tracking shots have a larger field of view, which allows the audience to see more of the environment. Oftentimes, the camera is placed in corners of the rooms, which makes the staging feel off-center or even tilted. This camera placement works best during emotionally tense scenes, as it further accentuates the underlying apprehension of the story.

I wouldn’t say it’s a visually stunning film to look at, but the neighborhood isn't meant to be beautiful. The setting is meant to be honest and humble, while slightly unsettling and disturbing — the barricades around the town almost always being visible whenever the characters go outdoors.

Imagine if your local neighborhood had burnt cars, wooden planks and bags of sand placed by street intersections. Inside, you're given the illusion that you live in a normal society, but outside, you're reminded that you’re in a warzone.

Authenticity, honesty and realism are what fundamentally make "Belfast" a great film. It’s a film that’s easy to fall in love with largely thanks to its portrayal of Buddy and his family. Those who admire old school films will also find a lot to enjoy in this film as well.


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