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Kenneth Branagh’s ‘Belfast’ is One of the Most Emotionally Compelling Films of the Year

Still from Kenneth Branagh's Belfast
©Focus Features

Equal parts funny, heartwarming, and deeply tender—Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast is an emotionally compelling masterpiece full of refinements. Romanticism isn’t a bad thing if it’s personal, and if it feels authentic, then it works to tell the kind of story that’s going to leave a lasting impact. 

Starring Dame Judi Dench, Jude Hill, Lewis McAskie, Caitriona Balfe, Jamie Dornan, Ciarán Hinds, and Colin Morgan, Belfast allows its character to reflect on darkness, perseverance, and hope. As the audience’s eyes and ears to the story, Buddy (Hill) brings the uncertainties of religion to life with a lens of naiveté that’s almost painfully realistic but simultaneously sprinkled with humor. Those marred by religious upbringings will feel the pangs of the young boy’s reactions, even when the film allows the character to bask in the innocence of boyhood.

And yet, Buddy’s story mirrors the best parts of childhood—the uncertainties and excitement of a first crush, the curiosities and the need for adventure, the first real moments of falling in love with cinema, and even the quiet reflections about life that we’ve all felt but likely have forgotten. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention the standout performance by Jude Hill. A kid who’s undoubtedly going places and a talented star to look out for in the future.

Branagh’s vision and personal connection to the film strengthen the essence through an enamoring view into extremism and loyalty coupled with family and boundaries. But the innocence and the emotionally compelling heart lie in its characters. The grandparents and their story. The simplicity of math’s complexities. The good, the bad, and the ugly, and how they weave themselves onto memories that somehow still feel good upon revisiting.

Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast is a love letter through and through.

Jude Hill in Belfast
©Focus Features

In some inexplicably intrinsic way, depending on the lens audiences view the film through, each character is part of its heart. Buddy, Will, Ma, Pa, Granny, and Pop all frame the story with a melancholy attachment to the quiet streets and the fight for freedom. We could take apart Granny’s final “go, don’t look back” with thousands and thousands of words because so many of us have been there. We’ve said goodbye and as much as its pained them, it’s what they would have wanted.

I was reminded of my own grandmother then, of her innate stubbornness to live and die in the village she grew up in—the one she’d never leave no matter how much we begged her to. It was home, she’d say. The cobblestone streets, the chickens in her yard, the neighbors who’d known her since she was born—it never mattered that her children and grandchildren were thousands of miles away, she was home. And we were guaranteed to always have a home with her, but she didn’t want us to look back.

Dench brilliantly brought a myriad of emotions to life with a single look that should land her the supporting actress award. It was striking and raw, and breaking the fourth wall of sorts allows it to feel that much more personal. I bet I wasn’t the only one who remembered their grandmother or someone who stayed. The look in her eyes broke me while simultaneously evoking such a profound feeling of hope, and I didn’t know what to do with myself. It’s going to be okay—if granny says it will, then it’s a promise that is to be delivered.

Caitriona Balfe and Jamie Dornan in Kenneth Branagh's Belfast
©Focus Features

The performances in Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast compliment the words on the page exquisitely. Balfe brings her best as Ma—fearless and afraid, broken and yet standing tall, playful and in love, there wasn’t a single emotion Balfe didn’t touch on masterfully. Ma would’ve been a compelling character through spoken word alone, but Balfe brought layers to her that were aspiring and a sight to see. A strong Oscar contender I will fight for.

And then there’s Jamie Dornan. I made a joke on my Twitter account where I said we, as the people, should collectively do something to ensure singing is always in his contract, and…I’m not sure I’m joking. Because I’m not sure how a film this brilliantly crafted around religious extremism, the darkness of a civil war, and childhood innocence mastered the art of bringing in a performance of “Everlasting Love” that fit so perfectly into the film’s essence.

Where for a moment I genuinely wasn’t sure where this love story was going or how it would end, the scene took my heart and ran with—far and fast. An acute representation of “for a moment, the world disappeared.” For a moment, it was just the two of them, everything they’ve been through, their love story, their loyalty to each other, and the stunning chemistry that made for the kind of moment that’s more intimate than anything else they could have done.

Balfe and Dornan encompassed the distinctive facets of Ma and Pa’s romance through such a memorable dance there was no need for any other declarations as their expressions told an entire story. There’s a moment in the film where he says “it’s all her,” and he’s absolutely right, but their love also sparks every ounce of the heart within the kids. We saw that very love come to life to through Balfe and Dornan’s astonishing performances. (And at this point, Dornan has proven that there’s no role he cannot escape into, making him that much more riveting to watch as a performer.)

Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast is an all-around achingly brilliant masterpiece with so many angles to take on. A definite must-watch.

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