Belfast is a charming 2021 semi-autobiographical film from writer/director Kenneth Branagh detailing his life through the eyes of a young boy in Ireland during the tumultuous late 60’s. Starring Jamie Dorman, Ciaran Hinds, and Caitriona Balfe the film is a lighthearted and moving snapshot of the difficulties of family life and Irish identity. The Blu-ray from Universal Pictures offers an excellent A/V package and plenty of bonus features to please fans of the film. Recommended.
“Raquel Welch is a hell of an education.”
Belfast is Kenneth Branagh’s semi-autobiographical story about growing up in Northern Ireland from the perspective of a young boy named Buddy (Jude Hill) who finds himself caught in the Protestant and Catholic riots. The boy loves American films and uses his imagination to navigate those trying days filled with multiplication tables, girls, and violent rioters. His loving but stressed Ma (Caitriona Balfe, Ford v Ferrari) manages the home while tradesman Pa (Jamie Dornan, Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar ) is away in England unable to find work at home. Protestant riots begin upending their comfortable neighborhood. As the financially stricken family deals with intimidators, Ma grows weary of Pa’s absence and his inability to fess up to his true financial debt. When an opportunity comes up for the family to leave the same street they’ve known for decades Pa is quick to decide but his family can’t bear to think about leaving home.
While the riots fuel the intense sequences and provide the undercurrent for the family’s anxieties, Branagh focuses primarily on Buddy's family dynamic. Pa’s seemingly endless financial indiscretions and Buddy’s childhood challenges occupy the bulk of the story. Buddy’s grandparents Pop (Ciarán Hinds, Munich) and Granny (Judy Dench, Notes on a Scandal) are still rich with life offering him countless philosophies. Though Buddy's parent still love each other, Ma is becoming unable to deal with the anxieties of living in a war zone while protecting her family. Thankfully Branagh injects humor, lightheartedness, and catchy Van Morrison music at every turn. It may seem that violence and destruction are constantly present but Belfast remains free from a constant onslaught of terror. Whether following Buddy’s triumphs at school or weathering the day with Ma on the street, the film remains nostalgic about a singular time and place for the director. It’s a wonderfully poetic remembrance filled with tender moments and hope for the future.
Performances are effective and memorable from the stellar cast. Newcomer Judy Hill as Buddy gives his all in every scene wonderfully capturing the confusion and challenges of a film-obsessed boy. Judi Dench is perfect as the wise Granny who must endure losses on all sides of her life while facing an uncertain future with strength. Caitriona Balfe works a bit too hard here as Ma with the long tearful monologues but conveys the rollercoaster ride of motherhood with relatable tenacity. Ciarán Hinds and Jamie Dornan are wonderfully cast in their roles, though Dornan isn’t given much to do overall. Hinds is great as Pa the poetic Pop who gives true life advice to Buddy while he deals with underlying issues of his own.
I especially loved seeing the young film lover watch High Noon and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. When the “bad guys” come to intimidate his family Buddy sees them through the lens of American westerns complete with his father caught in a showdown with the villain. Branagh is having some sentimental fun with us! Belfast is like reading an old journal filled with raw emotion littered with details but then you sidetrack to tell an amusing anecdote along the way. Branagh’s sly use of vivid color in some scenes, along with in-jokes like the THOR comic book Buddy is reading, leads me to feel this was a true labor of love that needed to be expressed. As someone who left the family homestead long ago, Belfast gently reminds me that no matter where you go home will always be with you.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Belfast arrives on Blu-ray thanks to Universal Pictures. The film is pressed onto a Region A BD-50 disc housed in a standard Blu-ray keepcase with a Digital Copy insert paper inside the case. The disc loads directly to the static Main Menu screen which offers a bonus features select window placed within the menu options.
Belfast looks absolutely stunning thanks to a crisp and dynamic HD presentation. The Blu-ray features a 1080p AVC encoded image in the film’s original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. Fine detail in facial features shows us the tiny freckles on Caitriona Balfe’s cheeks while costuming textures are clearly evident down to the stitching on close-ups. Blacks are inky with plenty of fine detail to emerge in shadow even within shades of gray. Image quality offers wonderful depth and range with an excellent contrast ratio giving every scene a lifelike presentation.
Belfast arrives on Blu-ray with an excellent 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix. The track is robust and full of texture while using the full scope of the surround channels creating an inviting atmosphere throughout the feature. Musical tracks and rioting sequences utilize the rear and front channels confidently putting you in the middle of the action. LFE is punchy yet well defined on music cues and explosive rioting sequences. Dialogue is clear and clean without hiss or pop detected.
Universal Pictures fills out Belfast with plenty of bonus features. I’d say start with the making-of featurette before moving onto the commentary track. Branagh has much to say about his labor of love for Ireland and it’s all worth hearing.
Belfast is a snapshot of Director Kenneth Branagh’s youth defined not by the violent social conflicts of the era but by the struggles of a young boy navigating his family’s struggle to leave the only place he has called home. With a stellar cast and engaging performances, the film sucks you into Buddy’s world and introduces you to his vibrant and warm community. Universal’s Blu-ray provides an excellent A/V package and plenty of extras for fans of the film. Recommended.