Film Review: ‘Belfast’: A Lighthearted Northern Irish Tale Told Amidst ‘The Troubles’

By Mark Jackson
Mark Jackson
Mark Jackson
Film Critic
Mark Jackson is the senior film critic for The Epoch Times. Mark has 20 years' experience as a professional New York actor, classical theater training, and a BA in philosophy. He recently narrated the Epoch Times audiobook “How the Specter of Communism is Ruling Our World,” and has a Rotten Tomatoes author page.
November 19, 2021 Updated: November 21, 2021

12 November 2021 | PG-13 | 1h 38m

Most young British actor standouts will have the ermine mantel of “The next Lawrence Olivier” immediately draped on their shoulders to try out for size. Olivier is widely considered to have been the greatest stage actor of all time, in addition to being an old-school Hollywood movie star, an accomplished and prolific director, and founder of one of the most prestigious theater companies in England. It’s a ponderous cape; but I remember thinking at the time of his breakout performance in Shakespeare’s “Henry V” that actor-director-writer Kenneth Branagh might indeed be able to succeed in bearing the weight of it.

Branagh exploded out of the showbiz starting gate in 1989, directing and starring in “Henry V” at the tender age of 29. It was a virtuoso turn, the battle scenes of which have informed “Braveheart,” “Lord of the Rings,” and any medieval battle involving horses and whistling overhead arrow-volleys taking place in muddy fields, to this day. All his filmed Shakespeare directorial endeavors, including Laurence Fishburne as Othello, have been impeccable.

The precocious ambition was staggering. Branagh was barely off and running, and already he was writing a memoir. As Olivier famously said of the young Anthony Hopkins who auditioned for Olivier’s National Theatre with an Othello monologue—knowing Olivier himself was currently playing Othello—“Cheeky bastard!”

The young Branagh didn’t have movie-star looks but his Shakespearian acting was untouchable and transporting—the honey-tongued tenor voice capable of enormously beguiling theatrical magic. Unfortunately, his American accent, while flawless, oddly turned him into a sort of younger blonde Mandy Patinkin, which gave the American public pause, so he couldn’t quite best Olivier in the international matinee idol category.

However, he pretty much nailed the direction of “Thor” and “Cinderella.” He’s won numerous awards.  He’s played a range of movie roles most actors would give their right arm for. His accomplishments are towering. And while there can probably only be one Olivier and no next Olivier, Olivier left the stage in his 80s. That gives Sir Kenneth Branagh another 20 years to challenge the legacy.

That all having been said, his latest directing project, “Belfast,” well—it wasn’t my cup of tea, so much. It might be yours though.

‘Belfast’

For the first few minutes of “Belfast,” I was actually under the impression that it was a Northern Irish tourism commercial. It was drone-footage intensive, brightly colored, and had fellow Northern Irish countryman Van Morrison dominating the soundtrack, doing what sounded like new versions of his old songs. Granted, any blue-eyed soul is immediately reminiscent of “The Commitments,” one of my favorite movies, and I settled in for what I anticipated to be a movie as delicious as that one.

family sitting in movie theater in Belfast
(L–R, front row) Ma (Catriona Balfe), Pa (Jamie Dornan), Granny (Judi Dench), Buddy (Jude Hill), and Will (Lewis McAskie), in Kenneth Branagh’s “Belfast.” (Rob Youngson/Focus Features)

“Belfast” is clearly a nostalgic walk down memory lane in terms of Branagh’s childhood in Northern Ireland, regardless of the fact that the time-period depicted is the late-60s and early-70s time of “The Troubles.” It is when Northern Ireland’s capital, Belfast, exploded, often literally, with the beginning of the decades-spanning civil and religious war between its Catholic and Protestant factions.

Since the rest of the film is shot in black-and-white, the obviously semi-autobiographical, coming-of-age story comes off as an extremely mild, often amusing, Northern Irish version of “Schindler’s List” with (obviously) little of the gravitas of Spielberg’s magnum opus.

man and woman dance in BELFAST
Ma (Catriona Balfe) and Pa (Jamie Dornan) dance at a party, in “Belfast.” (Rob Youngson/Focus Features)

Buddy (Jude Hill) is clearly Branagh’s young-boy self. Buddy’s dad (Jamie Dornan of “Fifty Shades of Grey”) is a bricklayer, mostly working remotely in London, a huge point of contention for Buddy’s parents. Buddy’s mother (Caitriona Balfe) is a stay-at-home housewife, tending to Buddy and his older brother. Paternal grandparents (Ciaran Hinds and Judi Dench) live around the corner, and there’s lots of cozy multi-generational family time.

two grandparents and grandson sit on couch in BELFAST
(L–R) Granny (Judi Dench), Buddy (Jude Hill), and Pop (Ciarán Hinds) in director Kenneth Branagh’s “Belfast.” (Rob Youngson/Focus Features)

Protestants

Buddy and family are all Protestants. As mentioned, there’s violence in the streets and local militants are not happy with the pacifism of Buddy’s pa. The family struggles to stay alive during civil unrest, economic desolation, lock-downs, and food shortages, but as bad as all that sounds, this movie is far more about the unsinkable-ness of the Northern Irish spirit.

children with wooden swords in BELFAST
Buddy (Jude Hill) and his friends play knights in the streets of Belfast, in “Belfast.” (Rob Youngson/Focus Features)

The film’s mostly about witty dialogue, schoolboy crushes, delightful grandfather-grandson discussions and coaching about the mystery of women (with grandma tut-tutting nearby). Young Buddy is pining intensely for a little blonde-haired classmate. This is very reminiscent of the scenes between Liam Neeson and Thomas Brodie-Sangster in “Love Actually.” It’s easily the best part of the movie.

The soundtrack is a bit too heavily dominated by Branagh’s fellow Belfast native Van Morrison for my tastes. I’d have preferred less of the American musical influence. As one character jokes, all any Irish person needs to survive abroad is a pub and the sheet music to “Danny Boy.” Only an Irishman can get away with a statement like that, of course, but I’m personally a huge fan of “indigenous,” traditional Irish music: There’s little that beats a lonely, a cappella Irish tenor in my book.

woman in doorway in BELFAST
Ma (Catriona Balfe) stands in the doorway of her Belfast, Northern Ireland home, in “Belfast.” (Rob Youngson/Focus Features)

Acting-wise, Caitriona Balfe may win something come award season, but the stand-out is child actor Jude Hill’s work. Look for him to stick around in movies for a good long while.

“Belfast” is cute, amiable, and amusing. Sometimes a bit boring. But one can indulge UK superstar Branagh indulging himself in a personal, nostalgic walk down memory lane. He needed some time off from his ongoing siege of Olivier’s legacy.

man talks to boy in BELFAST
Kenneth Branagh directs Jude Hill on the set of Branagh’s movie, “Belfast.” (Rob Youngson/Focus Features)

‘Belfast’
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Starring: Jude Hill, Jamie Dornan, Caitriona Balfe, Ciaran Hinds, Judi Dench
Running Time: 1 hour, 38 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Release Date: Nov. 12, 2021
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Mark Jackson
Film Critic
Mark Jackson is the senior film critic for The Epoch Times. Mark has 20 years' experience as a professional New York actor, classical theater training, and a BA in philosophy. He recently narrated the Epoch Times audiobook “How the Specter of Communism is Ruling Our World,” and has a Rotten Tomatoes author page.