Belfast

Belfast ★★★★½

There's a couple of criticisms that have been aimed at Kenneth Branagh's latest effort, Belfast. First, that it is 'Oscar Bait: The Movie' and second, that it is Branagh's attempt at Roma.

Both points have more than a fair amount of truth to them, but in slight defence on both... First, The House of Gucci is Oscar Bait. King Richard is Oscar Bait. Spencer is Oscar Bait... you get my point.

And as for the Cuarón influence, sure, Roma is an easy comparison to draw with this film, but it's not as if the Mexican himself wasn't drawing from Truffaut or Fellini or Allen.

So with intentions and influences set aside, how does Belfast stand up in its own right?

There's no doubt this is Branagh's most personal work, and the film benefits from his passion for the project. Seen through a child's eyes in our protagonist Buddy, it has that classic movie magic appeal of finding beauty and wonder in even the darkest times. And this is 1969 Belfast, so there's plenty of darkness bursting through.

Jude Hill is wonderful as Buddy, a quizzical young boy who is at that age where the world is beginning to blossom into consciousness for him. The film practically shows this switch in its opening moments as Buddy goes from a kid playing in the street to a sudden awareness of everything he's been sheltered from up to this point. And this only serves to open his eyes wider, with themes of love, death and taxes all on the horizon.

The supporting cast is equally excellent. The standout is probably Caitríona Balfe as Ma, who has to carry a lot of the film as Buddy's mother and guiding light through his experiences. Jamie Dornan is very well cast too, as Pa. Just as important to the story as the ever-present mother, the father will ultimately become the driving force in the young boy's life. And then there's the wonderful double-act of Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds as the wisened elders of the story - Granny and Pop.

Each facet of the family brings their own element to the story, but it's the city, and all its history that is the possibly the biggest character of all.

On a personal note, my dad's side derives from Derry, and watching this film was quite an uncanny experience for me, bringing back memories of a 9-year old me listening to my own Pop, telling me "how it was back home"... even the constant Van Morrison backdrop was spot on.

So yes, there's no getting away from the 'Oscar Bait' tag, and the Roma influences are exact... but Belfast is still the rarest of films, in that it could only be made by a person who understands the subject intimately, and for that reason, it's worthy of your time.

Belfast is both a dreamy love letter to a city and also a rumination of everything the place represents - a heartbeat of conflict yes, but equally a magical place that can shape a young boy like Kenneth Branagh, through the wit and determination of so many souls - whether they are the ones who stayed, the ones who left or the ones who were lost.

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