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Belfast review: Kenneth Branagh creates crowd-pleasing awards contender



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Mark Walsh reviews Belfast and looks ahead to National Theatre Live at the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse.

From left, Caitriona Balfe as "Ma", Jamie Dornan as "Pa", Judi Dench as "Granny", Jude Hill as "Buddy", and Lewis McAskie as "Will" in director Kenneth Branagh's Belfast, a Focus Features release. Picture: Rob Youngson / Focus Features
From left, Caitriona Balfe as "Ma", Jamie Dornan as "Pa", Judi Dench as "Granny", Jude Hill as "Buddy", and Lewis McAskie as "Will" in director Kenneth Branagh's Belfast, a Focus Features release. Picture: Rob Youngson / Focus Features

The opening of Kenneth Branagh’s new film feels a little simplistic for a director whose career has ranged from Shakespeare to Disney via Agatha Christie.

A brightly lit, colourful montage of aerial shots of shipyards and narrow, terraced streets seem to suggest that Belfast could be indistinguishable from any contemporary city. But the film quickly transitions to a very different version of the director’s birthplace, suddenly turning monochrome and instantly throwing us into a city riven with divisions at the height of The Troubles.

Caitriona Balfe, left, stars as "Ma" and Jude Hill, right, stars as "Buddy" in director Kenneth Branagh's Belfast, a Focus Features release. Picture: Rob Youngson / Focus Features
Caitriona Balfe, left, stars as "Ma" and Jude Hill, right, stars as "Buddy" in director Kenneth Branagh's Belfast, a Focus Features release. Picture: Rob Youngson / Focus Features

Branagh’s semi-autobiographical film views the community through the eyes of nine-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill), who lives with his extended family on one of those terraced streets.

Buddy’s father (Jamie Dornan) works in England and sends money back to the family, but he finds himself drawn home as tensions rise between the Protestant and Catholic communities.

While Pa dreams of an escape to warmer climes and a new life for his family, local trouble maker Billy Clanton (Colin Morgan) demands loyalty to their cause and the trouble likely to come with it.

From left, Lewis McAskie as "Will", Caitriona Balfe as "Ma", Judi Dench as "Granny", Jamie Dornan as "Pa", and Jude Hill as "Buddy" in director Kenneth Branagh's BELFAST, a Focus Features release. Credit : Rob Youngson / Focus Features
From left, Lewis McAskie as "Will", Caitriona Balfe as "Ma", Judi Dench as "Granny", Jamie Dornan as "Pa", and Jude Hill as "Buddy" in director Kenneth Branagh's BELFAST, a Focus Features release. Credit : Rob Youngson / Focus Features

But, while Buddy is aware of the escalating tensions around him, he’s also concerned with the difficulties of childhood, including keeping Ma (Caitríona Balfe) happy despite his tendency to get drawn into hijinks, and also the feelings he’s developing for his classmate Catherine; she’s not only a high achiever but, as a Catholic, she’s from the other side of the barricades.

Meanwhile, Pa’s parents Granny (Judi Dench) and Pops (Ciarán Hinds) try to make sense of everything happening around them.

The cast are universally great, with Dornan a world away from his staid Fifty Shades persona and Dench and Hinds offering gentle humour from the side lines. The two real standouts are Hill, who perfectly captures the blithe indifference of childhood to the seriousness around him, and Balfe, torn between the desire to retain the benefits of a stable family life for her children and the knowledge that any hope of that is becoming increasingly impossible.

Writer/director Kenneth Branagh on the set of Belfast, a Focus Features release. Picture: Rob Youngson/Focus Features
Writer/director Kenneth Branagh on the set of Belfast, a Focus Features release. Picture: Rob Youngson/Focus Features

While Branagh doesn’t shy away from capturing the rising threat edging ever closer to the family’s doorstep, the overall effect of the film is one of joy: the sheer joy of a first flush of childhood friendship, and the Westerns and comic books in which Buddy finds escape from the tribulations of life. Branagh allows occasional bursts of colour to enter their world through these moments, and frames them in tribute to some of cinema’s greatest moments of childhood wonder (a trip to the cinema, for example, evoking Cinema Paradiso).

The positive spirit in the face of adversity is reinforced by the exuberant Van Morrison soundtrack, and Belfast easily justifies its place as the most crowd-pleasing film in awards contention this year, with a portrayal of a city and its people that revels in their warmth and spirit.

Belfast opens on Friday, January 21.

From left, Jamie Dornan as "Pa", Caitriona Balfe as "Ma", Jude Hill as "Buddy", and Lewis McAskie as "Will" in director Kenneth Branagh's BELFAST, a Focus Features release. Picture: Rob Youngson / Focus Features
From left, Jamie Dornan as "Pa", Caitriona Balfe as "Ma", Jude Hill as "Buddy", and Lewis McAskie as "Will" in director Kenneth Branagh's BELFAST, a Focus Features release. Picture: Rob Youngson / Focus Features

National Theatre Live

The regular recordings and live broadcasts from the National Theatre have brought joy to the nation’s theatre and cinema audiences since 2009.

They’ve become even more invaluable during the pandemic, not only offering a route into some of the country’s best productions in cinemas but also saving the need to take any risks on lengthy public transport journeys during the pandemic. The start of the 2022 season is looking particularly strong, with two productions showcasing some of the best talent in theatre.

Leopoldtstadt picked up an Olivier Award for Best New Play in 2020, and follows the lives of a prosperous Jewish family in Vienna through the first half of the twentieth century. Tom Stoppard, writing what he says might be his final play, located events in Vienna so they were not directly inspired by his own life, but he discovered in later life that all four of his grandparents died in concentration camps.

The production, with a 40-strong cast, is directed by playwright and actor Patrick Marber and will be showing on Holocaust Memorial Day (Thursday 27th January), with a replay on 8th February.

An attempt to film Philip Pullman’s acclaimed His Dark Materials trilogy for the cinema screen with Daniel Craig and Nicole Kidman didn’t get past the first book, but versions for both TV and stage have been more successful. Now, the first part of Pullman’s second trilogy, The Book Of Dust, has been adapted for the theatre, with La Belle Sauvage set twelve years earlier, when His Dark Materials’ protagonist Lyra is an infant.

Puppetry brings the daemons – animal representations of human souls – to life, and Nicholas Hytner, director of the original play, also returns to guide this prequel. The Book Of Dust - La Belle Sauvage is screening on Thursday, February 17, with a replay on March 8.

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