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Sunday, October 24, 2021

‘Belfast’ Telluride Film Festival Review: Kenneth Branagh’s Memorable Story Growing Up In A Volatile Northern Ireland Circa 1969

Coming on the heels of the Venice debut this week of Paolo Sorrentino’s memories of Growing up in 1980’s Naples is a trip back in time for yet another celebrated director, and of course actor, Kenneth Branagh who revisits the memories of being  nine years old and growing up in Belfast, Northern Ireland right in the middle of troubles breaking out between the Protestants and the Catholics that so ravaged the country. Like Sorrentino, Branagh says it has taken a long time, 50 years to be exact, to sort out those memories and try to put them into some (fictionalized) context that has universal meaning all these years later.

For the director who was born in Belfast at the end of 1960, he has struck a tone of joyful family life mixed with the terrifying breakout of hostilities between the two factions that changed things forever in his neighborhood and the country, all told through the eyes of Buddy who we can take as a stand in for Branagh himself, a colorful young kid who particularly loves American westerns like High Noon and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance on TV, is a fan of football and toy cars, and going to the local movie house to see films like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang with his family. He also is working up the courage to talk to a favored girl as his life on one particular street in Belfast seems idyllic until, virtually overnight, crowds descend on the neighborhood as the troubles begin, and the families who live there must find a way to continue a semblance of their normal lives while essentially being locked down. It has unexpected resonance for right now too.

Branagh wrote this script for a film he calls the most personal he has ever made during the early days of the 2020 pandemic and shot it entirely as it was still raging. He is now premiering it this weekend at the Telluride Film Festival, and later next week at the Toronto International Film Festival while that pandemic is still raging. Though this is set in a very different time in 1969 it still speaks to the power of trying to maintain a connection as family and human beings even in the face of an ever growing threat. How do you keep your family safe against some terrifying new odds? Although scenes of confrontation in the streets of Belfast are very much in the forefront, what Branagh has done is to parallel it with that of what makes life there so important, and how this family can continue to survive as a unit. It is all seen from the perspective of Buddy played with spirit, heart, and spunk by irresistible newcomer Jude Hill in his film debut. With such awestruck wonder and love for the movies it doesn’t take much imagination to figure out where Branagh got his inspiration for the character, As a director alone his stellar career has included such big scale films as Thor, Cinderella, Murder On The Orient Express, and the upcoming Death On The Nile, but this one is a much smaller memory play shot in beautiful but sunny black and white images by Haris Zambarloukos who has collaborated with Branagh on several of his films.

Kenneth Branagh, Jude Hill

In the story Buddy’s Pa (as he is called) played superbly by Jamie Dornan  is a good father trying to make a living for his family but forced to do that by commuting to England where the opportunities and pay are more available. He is gone for two weeks out of the month, leaving much of the heavy lifting of bringup up Buddy and older brother Will (Lewis McAskie) to a very strong Ma (as she is known) played with style and substance by Caitriona Balfe. Though she has her own dreams for her life, the ever-changing  world around her family has to take precedence, and that also includes for grandparents Pop ( a great Ciaran Hinds) and Granny ( an equally great Judi Dench) who live in the same neighborhood.  There is also cousin Moira (Lara McDonnell) figuring in events, and a number of strong Irish supporting actors in the mix, but it is undeniable that young Mr. Hill  steals the show – and our hearts.  This is a film about home and family and our earliest memories, and what that all means filtered through a prism half a century later. Branagh has revisted his own past and made a film that resonates in much the same way yet another current film, CODA also does in reminding us that despite whatever hardships, family is always there to get us through.

As noted the black and white cinematography is stunning, along with very impressive production design from Jim Clay another frequent artisan Branagh works with (the entire Belfast neighborhood was reconstructed in England). The sound track comes mostly from another Belfast native, Van Morrison who contributed eight songs from his archive plus a new one. There is no question it adds significantly to the sound and feel of this terrific film.

Producers in addition to Branagh are Laura Berwick, Becca Kovacik, and Tamar Thomas. Focus Features will be releasing it in theatres in the U.S on November 12. It is one of the year’s best movies, no doubt.

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