Belfast (2021)

Quick synopsis: A semi-autobiographical film that chronicles the life of a working-class family and their young son’s childhood during 1960s Northern Ireland.

I will never go into a film as blind as I did this one. I’ve sometimes gone into films not knowing much about them, just watched a single trailer etc. A few times it’s just been the synopsis. Sometimes it has just been the title. This I didn’t even know that. It was a secret preview screening, I worried it was Cyrano, but assumed it would be The 355. I think this was quite unexpected, as when the title card came up there was a general feeling of “not what I expected, but I’ll take it”.

That was a great way to watch this film. It’s a coming of age story, and in life, you don’t know what’s coming. We don’t live in a horror story, or a romance story, we live in our own stories, the genre defined by what we see in front of us. What is coming is unknown, but we can make guesses based on what we’ve seen. It’s great to watch such an uncertain time period unfold through the eyes of a child. We see him play in the streets with childlike wonder, then shit starts going down. Considering when and where it was set, it’s not completely surprising, but it’s unsettling to see that kind of sudden terror interrupt something so innocent and pure.

That being the way to open is PERFECT. Then when more things like that happen they also stick in your head. This affects the way you watch the film. Even when nice things happen, even when there are moments of pure joy, the potential for sudden explosive violence is in your head. The fear that at any moment everything can go wrong is always in the back of your mind. That must have been what it was like though, so that alone does more to put you in their shoes than anything else similar but lesser films have done.

This feels like the most personal film in the career of Branagh, you can feel the genuine heart and love he has for the subject. The whole thing feels like someone is telling you a story, and the film is just in your mind as you try to picture it. He directs it beautifully, lending every moment a real intimacy.

The performances are great too, not just individually but how they interact with each other. The cast has such great chemistry that it’s easy to believe they’re all family. The one downside is that perhaps Dornan and Dench are too recognisable for this to be as effective as it could be, but that’s a minor quibble. The people you won’t know pull you in brilliantly. I didn’t know who Caitríona Balfe was before this but I probably should have (truth be told for most of the film I thought she was Cate Blanchett), I have seen her in things but she’s never stood out to me before now. She’s great in this, the torment she’s going through echoes through every moment of her performance. The true star, though, is Jude Hill, who gives a remarkable performance for someone so young.

So in summary, go see this. It’s a wonderfully personal tale and one that deserves to be seen.

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