Synopsis: Buddy is a young boy on the cusp of adolescence, whose life is filled with familial love, childhood hijinks, and a blossoming romance. Yet, with his beloved hometown caught up in increasing turmoil, his family faces a momentous choice: hope the conflict will pass or leave everything they know behind for a new life.
Stars: Caitriona Balfe, Judi Dench, Jude Hill, Jamie Dornan, Ciarán Hinds, Lara McDonnell
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Running Length: 97 minutes
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review: If they haven’t yet, the Belfast tourist board should consider asking writer/director Kenneth Branagh to film their next tourism campaign. The opening and closing shots of Belfast, his semi-autobiographical film, show a modern-day Belfast that remembers its history and the working-class people that built it with pride. These full color moments are fleeting, and soon we’ll be taken into the black and white past to experience a brief moment in time through the eyes of a child during a period of change. For his family, for his neighborhood, for his country. At the beginning, you immediately get the impression the story you are about to see is going to be something special. At the end, you know it was.
It’s the tail end of 1969 and all Buddy (newcomer Jude Hill) knows is his small community in Belfast. At the opening of the film, the neighborhood is besieged by a mob involved with the Troubles, the decades long conflict between Protestants and Catholics which led to much violence and bloodshed. This attack leaves the area scarred and scared and we get the impression it’s the first time the young boy has seen the idyllic idealism of his youth interfered with in such a massive way. With his father (Jamie Dornan, Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar) often off in England to provide for his family, his mother (Caitriona Balfe, Ford v Ferrari) rules the roost and does so with a strong arm but loving heart.
Guided by his grandfather (Ciarán Hinds, The Woman in Black) and grandmother (Judi Dench, Skyfall) when his parents can’t be there, Buddy navigates the absence of his father by applying himself in school to impress a girl he likes and reveling in the time his dad is there. These reunions are clearly the biggest memories and some of the most cherished to recreate. While their marriage is strained by the distance, the couple bonds over their affection for their family and wanting to do what’s best. As the violence increases and the taking of sides is demanded, choices have to be made about the future and what ultimately makes a home. Is it where you grew up or where you rest your head at night?
Branagh’s film is, like many autobiographical and semi-autobiographical works, episodic in nature because that’s often how our memories feel. He’s smartly placed Buddy in a number of scenes as an observer to adult conversations, allowing his knowledge of important decisions and discussions to make sense. It’s in that way the film comes off feeling entirely authentic yet dream-like at the same time. Perhaps it’s Haris Zambarloukos’s (Eye in the Sky) gorgeous black and white photography but at times it does feel like we’re tooling around in someone’s stored memories, their half-remembered dreams of how they recollect certain events.
Having directed a number of films from Shakespeare drama to comedies to action and fairy tales, Branagh understands the magnitude of cinema and uses that scale for maximum impact in Belfast. I mentioned the opening and closing are in color, but he chooses a few other moments of color to punctuate a point. I won’t give away what those are, but it’s used so well, mostly because it’s exactly the type of thing a child would remember in full, vivid color. His screenplay is both tender-hearted, wise, and, at times, deeply funny. For every scene that tugs at the heartstrings (like Balfe’s wondrous monologue to her husband about why she prefers to stay in Belfast) there are lovely, well-tuned moments of comedy that don’t feel shoehorned in for laughs.
Casting is essential and I’m sure it wasn’t a cakewalk having to think about what are pretty much stand-ins for your real life loved ones but Branagh (All is True) has assembled an excellent cast from top to bottom. Aside from the impressive Hill who so ably carries the film on his small but mighty shoulders, we have Balfe and Dornan doing career-best work as his parents. The two work believably well as a couple and as parents to Hill and the boy playing his brother. There’s an easiness to how they act with one another and their brief musical moment where Dornan sings and Balfe dances is sure to be one of my favorite moments of 2021. Can you ever say a word against Dench? Speaking or not speaking, Dench is always right there in the scene and completely takes you into the world. I think my favorite performance might be from Hinds, though, and surprisingly he’s the one that I feel has been talked about the least. This is the one more people should be looking at because it’s secretly the heart and soul of the movie…and I think Branagh might agree because he’s clearly written in that way.
Winner of the audience award at the Toronto Film Festival and already on track for a slew of Oscar nominations, this is what you’d call a “contender” and a sure-fire crowd pleaser. It’s the perfect length and pitched just right to stir your emotions to the balanced mix of comedy and drama. One of the very best movies I’ve seen in 2021, take this trip to Belfast and a look back into history for Branagh’s special story of growing up in a specific time and place. Really a joyous experience that fills your cup to overflowing.