When it first premiered at Telluride Film Festival in 2021, it seemed like Belfast, Kenneth Branagh’s auto-biographical drama, could conquer the world and all the upcoming awards. It was reported to be sweet, endearing and featured great performance. What’s not to love?!
Belfast’s star and momentum started to fade when The Power of the Dog and CODA started gaining momentum but on a rewatch, Belfast remains exactly as it was last year; sweet and endearing, if nothing else. There’s not much going on under the surface, but it’s stylish, warm and the perfect antidote to the depressing reality we’re living through.
The story is of course set in Belfast, during The Troubles. The film begins with a seemingly ordinary street being terrorised by Protestants who want the Catholics gone. Young Buddy (Jude Hill), from a Protestant family, witnesses this and it irrevocably colours his youth and childhood as he comes of age at the pictures and on the streets of Belfast.
Branagh nearly slips into a state of self-indulgence with Belfast. It’s clearly inspired by Branagh’s own upbringing and his love of the movies as we see Buddy go to the cinema and how these experiences with his family shape him. Belfast is highly idealistic, almost to the point of being naive, and although it shows The Troubles as highly traumatising for the entire community, Branagh somehow manages to romanticise growing up during such a tumultuous time.
Belfast is still immaculately cast. Jamie Dornan, often visibly almost uncomfortable on screen, gives his most relaxed and loose performance yet. Caitríona Balfe is the heart of the film, a gentle, yet fiercely protective mother of her clan, but it’s Hill who is the soul of the film. He’s curious, lively and wondrous without ever being annoying. We experience Belfast through his eyes and what an experience that is.
Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds offer amicable support, but their roles are fleeting and their characters often feel like an afterthought. Branagh’s tonal shifts don’t always work and the narrative is at times too scattered, but Belfast is mostly a coherent film.
The home entertainment release comes with your standard bonus features. You’ve got deleted scenes, a making-of featurette and Branagh’s commentary. It’s all relatively uninspiring and nothing unexpected. But there’s also an alternative ending, a truly baffling ending that sees the adult Branagh, presumably playing Buddy return to Belfast in modern times. It’s awful and self-centred and we should be thankful it wasn’t included in the theatrical version.
Belfast holds up on a rewatch and it’s a film that brings one joy and comfort, but it doesn’t do anything new or exciting with its narrative. It’s easy to watch and digest and asks very little of its audience, but it is full of heart. And maybe that’s all we need sometimes.
Belfast is available now on digital, DVD and Blu-Ray.