“Belfast” Review: Kenneth Branagh Vies for Oscar Acclaim With Return to His Homeland

Caitríona Balfe, Jamie Dornan, Judi Dench, Jude Hill and ​​Lewis McAskie in “Belfast.” Photo Courtesy: Focus Features

Rating: 6/10

When it comes to Kenneth Branagh I'm not objective. I came of age on Peter’s Friends (1992), Much Ado About Nothing (1993), A Midwinter's Tale (1995) and his version of Hamlet (1996). I've always considered the roundtable interview I did with the actor and director in 2014 — he was promoting Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit — as one of the highlights of my career. I asked him if he wanted to direct Shakespeare adaptations again. He’d been taking bigger helming assignments — his previous movie had been the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Thor (2011) — and I missed his smaller films with an almost theatrical quality to them.

When I first heard about the black and white Belfast I realized Branagh was finally going back to his indie filmmaking roots. The Irish filmmaker has been vocal about Belfast being his most personal movie. He not only directed it but also wrote the film and based it on his own experience growing up in the Northern Ireland capital during the 1960s.

The film, which opens in movie theaters this Friday, November 12, is set during a few eventful weeks in late 1969. Buddy (Jude Hill) is a smart, wide-eyed 9 year old who fights imaginary dragons on the streets of his hometown armed with a wooden sword and a trash can lid for a shield. When his Ma (Caitríona Balfe) calls him to afternoon tea, he makes his way home talking to everyone on his path. Everybody knows him by name. You get a sense Buddy couldn’t be in a safer place than this Belfast neighborhood. That’s until a group of rioters starts smashing windows, burns a car and wreaks havoc in that previously idyllic area of the city. Through a news report on the TV, you learn those attacked were Catholics living in a mostly Protestant area.

The Northern Ireland conflict between unionists and nationalists, also known as the Troubles, is a trigger that upends Buddy’s almost perfect life. But you won’t get a history lesson in Belfast. You won’t get a sense of what went on during those painful decades either. The movie is told from the perspective of a kid. Branagh informs the viewer about what occurred at the time only through newscasts that Buddy may partially overhear.

To further represent the way Buddy experiences things, the filmmaker frequently uses low-angle shots to frame the grownups in the movie. The film looks classical only in its use of black and white. From handheld cameras to 360-degree turns around his protagonists to shots from the ground on the street or even tilted ones, Branagh has chosen many unexpected ways in which to frame his Belfast.