Belfast Review

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Belfast is why we go to the movies. That description might sound cliched, but it works on two levels. On one level, it’s a movie that you want to cuddle up with and hug every moment of. On another level, it sums up why we seek out cinema. No matter how complicated the world becomes, the movies are always there to provide escapism. Belfast creates a cozy realm that we want to live in forever. Sooner or later, reality forces us out of that comfort zone. Even when the good times end, though, our memories last like a picture show playing in our heads.

Belfast isn’t just a celebration of cinema, but childhood as well. If the Academy had a Best Child Performer Oscar, newcomer Jude Hill would be an easy frontrunner. Hill shines as Buddy, a young boy living in Belfast, Northern Ireland during the late 60s. While the Troubles rage in the background, Buddy occupies himself with friends, family, and fantasy. The neighborhood’s social tensions inevitably seep into Buddy’s household, however. Buddy’s father (Jamie Dornan) must travel for extended periods. His mother (Caitríona Balfe) holds down the fort, but there’s only so much weight that she can carry alone. As Buddy’s parents are pushed to take a side on the rising conflict, they consider leaving Belfast behind.

Director Kenneth Branagh, who based Belfast on his upbringing, made the brilliant decision to shoot this film in black and white. Haris Zambarloukos’ cinematography captures nostalgia in a bottle, creating an otherworldly sense of wonder. At the same time, the use of black and white speaks to the bleak nature of Buddy’s childhood. Surrounded by riots and looming change, Belfast isn’t as idealistic as Buddy envisions it. Yet, some moments are so perfect that Buddy wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. Many of us can say the same about our childhood homes.

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Branagh reserves color for when Buddy seeks out entertainment. The film’s most awe-inspiring visual comes at a stage production of A Christmas Carol. While the audience is draped in black and white, the actors on stage radiate with a heavenly glow. That glow reflects off the glasses of Buddy’s grandmother (Judi Dench). To an extent, the play also reflects Buddy’s connection to Branagh. Belfast possesses the nostalgic warmth of Scrooge’s encounter with the Ghost of Christmas Past. Branagh might not be able to travel back in time, but Belfast practically puts us in his childhood shoes.

Buddy also absorbs colorful films like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang or One Million Years B.C.. However, Buddy’s word feels closer to the harsh environments of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and High Noon. Like Gary Cooper’s Marshal in the latter film, Buddy’s father is a clean-cut man racing against the clock. When the clock runs out, everyone’s life is changed forever. While Dornan turns in some of his best work, Balfe delivers the most layered performance as a mother who balances nurture with a firm hand. The real star of the film, though, is Belfast itself. 1960s Belfast probably isn’t as wonderful as Branagh remembers it, but his portrait makes us wish that we could stop by for a visit. Even if you didn’t grow up in Belfast, the film is sure to trigger fond memories of your best childhood days. The past is fleeting, but at least movies like Belfast are forever.

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About Nick Spake

Nick Spake has been working as an entertainment writer for the past ten years, but he's been a lover of film ever since seeing the opening sequence of The Lion King. Movies are more than just escapism to Nick, they're a crucial part of our society that shape who we are. He now serves as the Features Editor at Flickreel and author of its regular column, 'Nick Flicks'.

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