Sunday, September 19, 2021

TIFF film review: Belfast


Written & directed by Kenneth Branagh

ChinoKino score: B

Review by Allan Tong

TIFF's audience award winners (formally, the Grolsch People's Choice Award) inevitably go on to capture awards in the spring Oscars after scoring at the box office. These choices exemplify the excellent taste of Toronto audiences, given past choices such as Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Slumdog Millionaire and more recently Nomadland. This year's winner is Kenneth Branagh's Belfast, an affectionate childhood remembrance of a brutal time: summer 1969 as The Troubles began to tear apart Belfast. While a good film, Belfast however doesn't live up to the pedigree of past audience winners. 


Belfast is Branagh's memoirs of growing up in working-class Belfast until sectarian violence erupts between Protestants and Catholics, sparking decades of civil war. Here, Branagh is 9-year-old Buddy whose childhood literally takes an explosive turn. His family is Protestant, led by an upright father, who's a manual labourer often working out of town, and a strong housewife mother. They struggle to pay their taxes and make ends meet, while Buddy's a kid like any other who reads Thor comic books and plays in the street. His grandparents live nearby. Theirs is a loving, nurturing family. And it's a family that adores movies. We glimpse them catching High Noon and One Million Years B.C. on the telly or in the cinema. ("Raquel Welch is educational," quips Pa to a disapproving Ma as they watch the latter.)

After the opening credits showcase modern Belfast and its current financial growth, the film cuts to scintillating black-and-white where it stays. The Troubles threaten to strangle the city and is embodied by a single character, Protestant leader Billy Clanton who threatens Pa if he doesn't back the cause with his hands or wallet. Virtuous Pa tolerates Catholics and refuses to take sides. That decision dooms the family which starts to look overseas for a new future, and eventually settles on England.

Here lies the problem with Belfast. The Clanton villain doesn't pose enough of a threat to the family. When Clanton is eventually resolved, it feels too easy. Further, there isn't enough resistance from Buddy or his siblings (who don't play in the drama) in leaving Belfast.

What lifts the film, however, is the unerring recreation of time and place. This Belfast in 1969 feels like a genuine community, beautifully rendered by lensman Haris Zambarloukos and production designer Jim Clay. Judi Dench (part Irish) and Ciaran Hinds project genuine chemistry as the grandparents while the lovely Caitriona Balfe and handsome Jamie Dornan also convince as parents struggling to protect their children from an incoming civil war. Of the cast, Balfe stands out and will likely earn noms and awards for her work.

The film's strengths offset its ending, given that the main tension builds only partially. Belfast could've gone further and cut deeper. I have mixed feelings given the audience award, but generally positive ones for Branagh's cinematic memoir.

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