Review: ‘Belfast’ (2021), starring Caitríona Balfe, Judi Dench, Jamie Dornan, Ciarán Hinds and Jude Hill

November 11, 2021

by Carla Hay

Pictured in front row: Caitríona Balfe, Jamie Dornan, Judi Dench, Jude Hill and Lewis McAskie in “Belfast” (Photo by Rob Youngson/Focus Features)

“Belfast” (2021)

Directed by Kenneth Branagh

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1969, in Belfast, Northern Ireland, the dramatic film “Belfast” features an almost all-white cast of characters (with a few black people and South Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A tight-knight family in Belfast has conflicting feelings about moving out of this Northern Ireland capital city, as Northern Ireland has become increasingly affected by violent conflicts between the Irish Republican Army movement and the United Kingdom government.

Culture Audience: “Belfast” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching bittersweet and nostalgic movies about families trying to survive in an area plagued by violent civil unrest.

Judi Dench, Jude Hill and Ciarán Hinds in “Belfast” (Photo by Rob Youngson/Focus Features)

“Belfast” is more than a love letter to filmmaker Kenneth Branagh’s Northern Ireland hometown. It’s also a love letter to childhood memories that tend to put a rosy glow on some very grim realities. Branagh wrote and directed this semi-autobiographical dramatic film, which he says in the “Belfast” production notes is “the most personal film I have ever made. About a place and a people, I love.” Branagh is also one of the producers of the “Belfast,” which won the top prize (the People’s Choice Award) at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival, after the movie had its world premiere at the 2021 Telluride Film Festival.

Taking place during the last half of 1969, “Belfast” (which was filmed entirely in black and white) is told from the perspective of a 9-year-old boy named Buddy (played by Jude Hill, in an impressive feature-film debut), who lives in Belfast and is a lot like many 9-year-old boys: He loves to play and has an active imagination. He’s very fond of adventure stories and watching sci-fi shows and Westerns on TV.

Buddy is a bright and curious child who is particularly fascinated with stories about heroes and villains. He often roleplays as a hero with a miniature sword and shield. And in one scene in the movie, Buddy is shown reading a “Thor” superhero comic book, which is an obvious nod to “Thor” fan Branagh ending up as the director of the 2011 movie “Thor” in real life.

Buddy has a loving, working-class family, which includes his teenage brother Will (played by Lewis McAskie); homemaker mother Ma (played by Caitríona Balfe); joiner father Pa (played by Jamie Dornan); and Pa’s parents Granny (played by Judi Dench) and Pop (played by Ciarán Hinds). The real names of Buddy’s parents and grandparents are not mentioned in the movie. Buddy also has assorted aunts, uncles and cousins who live in the area. The family members are Protestant and live in a mostly Protestant part of Belfast.

Buddy’s mother is the glue who holds the family together. She has a strong sense of morality that she tries to instill in her children. She’s the more serious parent, while Buddy’s father is the more “fun-loving” parent who has an irresponsible side to him. Will is a kind and protective brother to Buddy, but the two siblings naturally have their share of minor squabbles. Buddy’s grandfather has a playful and mischievous side, while Buddy’s grandmother has a no-nonsense nature.

In 1969, Belfast had neighborhoods that were segregated according to religion: Catholics lived in mostly Catholic neighborhoods, while Protestants and other non-Catholics lived in mostly Protestant neighborhoods. This type of religious segregation in Belfast and Northern Ireland still largely exists today. This segregation is directly related to the conflict between those who believe that Northern Ireland should be given back to the mostly Catholic nation of Ireland and those who believe that Northern Ireland should remain under the rule of the mostly Protestant nation of the United Kingdom.

It’s this conflict that was the basis of the Troubles, a historic period that took place mostly in Northern Ireland from the late 1960s to 1998. The Troubles consisted of protests, riots and bombings in the disagreements over which government should be in control of Northern Ireland. It’s in this backdrop, when the Troubles began, that Buddy’s family must decide if they are going to remain in Northern Ireland or not.

Before the start of the Troubles, Buddy was leading a fairly idyllic life, where his biggest problem was trying to get the affections of his classmate Catherine (played by Olive Tennant), who is his not-so-secret crush. Buddy and Catherine are both outstanding students who are at the top of their class, so there’s a friendly rivalry that the two of them have with each other. Buddy would like to think that his intellect will impress Catherine, so it motivates him to do well in school. In his free time, Buddy likes to play outside, read, watch TV, and go to the cinema with his family.

This happy life bubble gets burst one day (August 15, 1969), when Buddy sees firsthand the violence erupting in the streets because of the political conflicts over Northern Ireland. While he’s playing outside, Buddy gets caught in the street where rioters are committing violence, including throwing Molotov cocktails. Buddy’s mother runs outside to rescue him and tells him to hide underneath the kitchen table.

It’s the end of Buddy and his family feeling completely safe in Belfast. Although they try to continue to lead their lives as normally as possible, the threat of violence and being harmed is always near and has become increasingly probable. Adding to the family’s stresses, Buddy’s father is heavily in debt, including owing back taxes, and the only work he can find is in England. And so, for about two weeks out of every month, Buddy’s father has to be away from home because of his job.

Buddy’s father is as attentive as he can be to his children, but he has another problem that is causing a huge strain on his marriage: He has a gambling habit, which obviously makes it harder for him to pay off his debts. Buddy’s parents try to hide these problems from the children, but the movie shows from a kid’s perspective how children eventually find out what causes their parents to argue.

Meanwhile, some local Belfast men, who are part of a group of violent protesters against the U.K. government, try to intimidate other people in the area to join their cause. Buddy’s father is one of the people who’s targeted for this recruitment. The gang’s leader is a menacing lout named Billy Clanton (played by Colin Morgan), who comes from a large family. Billy’s brother Fancy Clanton (played by Scott Gutteridge) and their friend McLaury (played by Conor MacNeil) are two Billy’s sidekicks who go with Billy to threaten people in the area.

When they approach Buddy’s father about becoming part of their group, they tell him that he has the choice of “cash or commitment”: In other words, if he doesn’t join, they expect to get extortion money from him. Buddy’s father tries to stall them for as long as possible about what decison he’ll make. But the thugs become impatient, and Buddy’s father knows that his time is running out. These threats, as well as his worries about his family’s safety (especially when he’s not in Belfast to protect them), make Buddy’s father more inclined to want to move out of the area as soon as possible.

“Belfast” isn’t all gloom and doom. There are moments of joy, such as when the family spends time together doing things that they like. For example, there’s a nice scene where the family watches the 1968 musical film “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” in a cinema. There’s also a cute moment when Buddy’s grandparents give him advice on how to charm Catherine. And the movie has some other levity, such as a recurring comedic scenario about the family’s minister (played by Turlough Convery), who seems more concerned about collecting money from the parishioners than in giving sincere sermons.

The mutual prejudices between Catholics and Protestants fueled the Troubles, but the movie pokes some fun at this religious bigotry. Buddy’s father comments in a scene: “I’ve got nothing against Catholics, but it’s a religion of fear.” The scene then cuts to the family’s minister giving a fear-based “fire and brimstone” type of sermon in church.

“Belfast” realistically shows how ambivalent a family can be in deciding whether or not to risk staying in a hometown that has become increasingly violent or leave behind family members, friends and other loved ones to start over in a new place where they might not know very many people. England is the most obvious place where Buddy’s father wants the family to move. However, at one point, Buddy’s father considers relocating the family to a U.K. commonwealth, such as Canada or Australia.

Buddy is not at all happy about the idea of moving out of Belfast. From his child’s point of view, moving away will ruin his life. Things become even more complicated when one of the grandparents ends up having a serious medical problem that requires an extended stay in a Belfast hospital. Meanwhile, Buddy’s parents become increasingly at odds with each other about if or when they should move out of Belfast.

What isn’t so realistic about “Belfast” is a pivotal scene in the movie that involves a showdown in the streets with Buddy’s father and Billy Clanton. There’s an action sequence during a riot that looks like a very “only in a movie” moment, including a slow-motion stunt shot. This scene can be excused if viewers take into account that it’s supposed to be from the memory of child who’s fascinated with hero/villain stories. However, it’s a scene that might have some viewers rolling their eyes in disbelief, even though this scene is supposed to be the most suspenseful part of the movie.

Some viewers might also have a hard time completely believing Balfe and Dornan in their roles as working-class, stressed-out parents. Balfe’s and Dornan’s performances are very good, but they look like very polished actors in roles that require them to look like life is getting rough for them. These parents are not supposed to look movie-star glamorous, which they do in a few too many scenes.

Nowhere is this “movie star glamour” more evident than in a scene where Buddy’s parents are out on a date in an attempt to rekindle some of the romance in their marriage. They’re at a dancehall, where Robert Knight’s 1967 hit song “Everlasting Love” begins playing. And suddenly, Buddy’s father gets in front of everyone and starts singing in perfect tune with perfect surround-sound audio (even though he has no microphone), like he’s the star of a concert. (Dornan does his own singing in obviously pre-recorded vocals.) And then, Buddy’s parents begin dancing and twirling as if they’re the 1969 Belfast equivalent of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

It’s a musical number that’s a feel-good moment, but might be too corny for some viewers. This song-and-dance scene certainly doesn’t fit with the more realistic family scenes in the film. Perhaps this is Branagh’s way of showing how a child’s memories can be embellished to remember things as a heightened version of reality.

Because of this childlike point of view, “Belfast” doesn’t get too bogged down in politics. There are hints that the adults in Northern Ireland either identify more with being Irish or being British. The movie doesn’t take sides on any political issues because Buddy’s family is not a political family. However, the “Belfast” soundtrack consists mostly of songs from Northern Irish artists, particularly Van Morrison. Morrison’s songs on the “Belfast” soundtrack are “Down to Joy,” “Caledonia Swing,” “And the Healing Has Begun” “Carrickfergus,” “Jackie Wilson Said,” “Stranded,” “Warm Love” and “Days Like This.”

Despite some of the flaws in the “Belfast” screenplay, none of the actors gives a bad performance in this film. Dench and Hinds are excellent as usual, but they’ve played these types of characters many times before in other movies. Balfe has more emotionally charged scenes than Dornan does, but Dornan and Balfe both capably handle their roles as parents trying to hold their family together, even though their strained marriage threatens to break them apart.

As the character of Buddy, Hill is an absolute delight to watch. He gives a completely charming performance, with intelligence that isn’t too smart-alecky, and with authenticity that doesn’t try too hard to look convincing. It will be interesting to see what kind of career that Hill will have as an actor, because some precocious child actors burn out and leave showbiz, while others end up thriving and go on to bigger and better accomplishments as actors.

“Belfast” is neither too dark nor too light in its tone. And the movie’s black-and-white cinematography gives a classic-looking sheen to the film. Except for a few unrealistic moments, “Belfast” is an emotionally moving journey into the difficult decisions that a family can make in the name of love.

Focus Features will release “Belfast” in U.S. cinemas on November 12, 2021. The movie’s release date in the U.K. and Ireland is January 21, 2022.