‘Belfast’ Blu-Ray Review
Kenneth Branagh’s nostalgia-tinged trip down memory lane arrives on Blu-ray and DVD this week, freshly minted with Oscar gold having picked up the gong for Best Original Screenplay. Filmed in evocative wide-angle monochrome, ‘Belfast’ reimagines Branagh’s childhood in the terraced streets of his home city, shot against the backdrop of the 1969 riots, and the rising political tensions in Northern Ireland.
The film follows the lives of a working-class protestant family, as seen through the eyes of Buddy (newcomer Jude Hill). His Da (Jamie Dornan) is a contractor often working away in England, whilst his Ma (Caitríona Balfe) doggedly looks after him and his older brother. The rest of the family is made up of Pop (Ciarán Hinds) and Granny (Judi Dench) who dole out the wise words of advice to young Buddy, who at 9-years-old is struggling to make sense of everything going on around him.
As Buddy falls in love with a Catholic girl from his class, and gets into various childish scrapes, the increasing temperature of The Troubles serves as a peripheral annoyance to his life, rather than the existential threat it actually is. He doesn’t really know what any of it is about, and amusingly misunderstands the politics and religious background to it all. The sense of danger is there, but Branagh chooses to keep it underneath the surface.
The director’s focus is instead on something more romantic and crowd-pleasing, which ultimately creates an uncomfortable push and pull at the heart of the film. With everything being presented to us from Buddy’s perspective, it gives Branagh a kind of get out of jail free card to indulge in whimsical flights of fancy, and mawkish sentimentality. Was there really that much dancing and lip-synching in 1960s Belfast?
But you can’t help but think he was aiming for high art with ‘Belfast’. For something visually poetic that transcends the simple story he’s telling. He evidently wants to say something about The Troubles, about Northern Ireland, about the fragility of childhood, but ends up saying very little about any of them. Let’s be honest, he was aiming for ‘Roma’ (2018). He falls somewhat short.
Jude Hill is excellent as the wide-eyed innocent Buddy, and alongside Caitríona Balfe, their central performances are the main reason for watching ‘Belfast’. It is a film with its heart in the right place, but for all the twinkly-eyed charm, it is extremely lightweight. Impossible not to like, but the fawning comparisons to the French New Wave and Italian Neorealism are surface level only. Much like this film.
The special features on the blu-ray release kick off with ‘A City of Stories’, which is a ten-minute featurette focused mainly on interviews with Branagh and his cast, intercut with clips from the film and some behind the scenes footage. There’s three-minutes of deleted scenes with optional commentary, and a short clip called ‘Everyone’s Inner Child’ where Branagh and the cast are hit with quick fire questions about their childhood.
Finally, the disc also presents an alternate ending, which can be watched with optional director’s commentary. The clip switches back to colour and finds a grown-up Buddy (Branagh) returning to Belfast as an adult. It is really quite awful. Thank goodness he had the sense to cut if from the final film.