Over the course of his lengthy career, Kenneth Branagh has been nominated for five Academy Awards, including once for Best Director for 1990’s “Henry V.”
His track record could potentially change with the intimate and visually dazzling “Belfast” (Focus Features), which he wrote and directed.
Beginning in August 1969, in the titular capital of Northern Ireland, “Belfast” narrows its focus to one family’s experience of “The Troubles.” Young Buddy (Jude Hill in his memorable feature film debut) lives with his Ma (Caitriona Balfe), his Pa (Jamie Dornan giving a performance worthy of forgiving him for the “Fifty Shades” movies), and his older brother Will (Louis McAskie) on a street populated with Protestants (including his family) and Catholics. His delightful Granny (Judi Dench) and Pop (Ciarán Hinds) also live nearby.
Within minutes of the film’s opening, violence erupts on a residential street where only moments before several children were playing. The rioters throw Molotov cocktails and bricks, set off a car bomb, all targeted towards the Catholic residents. Ma is able to keep Buddy and Will safe, as the soldiers and their tanks arrive, followed by Pa returning home from England where he works.
Ma and Pa, as well as Granny and Pop, do their parts to return to normalcy, despite the presence of armed soldiers and barbed wire barricades. Of course, nothing will ever be the same, as self-proclaimed street boss Billy (Kit Rakusen) backs Pa into a “cash or commitment” corner.
There is also a multitude of personal issues within the family. Ma and Pa are drowning in debt due to back taxes owed. Pa wants to relocate the family somewhere safe, even as far away as Sydney or Vancouver. Ma, who’s never lived anywhere but Belfast, is resistant. Star student Buddy has a mad crush on fellow smart classmate Catherine (Olive Tennant). School aside, Buddy also falls prey to the negative influence of older cousin Frances (Freya Yates), leading to a brush with the law following a shoplifting incident. Meanwhile, Pop, a retired miner, has lung issues that cause him to be hospitalized.
The juxtaposition of the personal and the political (not to mention the religious), make for combustible situations. However, to his credit, Branagh finds ways to lighten the mood on multiple occasions. Shot in breathtaking black and white (think 2018’s “Roma”) with some surprise touches of color (in addition to the opening and closing sequences), Branagh emerges triumphant from behind the camera. Additionally, the timing of the release of “Belfast,” shouldn’t be lost on a single audience member as we here in the States are on the brink of our own ethno-nationalist civil war.
Gregg Shapiro is the author of seven books including the expanded edition of his short story collection How to Whistle (Rattling Good Yarns Press, 2021). An entertainment journalist, whose interviews and reviews run in a variety of regional LGBTQ+ and mainstream publications and websites, Shapiro lives in Fort Lauderdale with his husband Rick and their dog Coco.