Kenneth Branagh, who is more famous for directing and appearing in Shakespeare and Agatha Christie adaptations, takes a rare dive into his personal history with Belfast. It recounts the life of 9-year-old Buddy in 1969 Belfast and his daily challenges as violence reigns in the background.
When the Troubles in Northern Ireland started, Branagh was a young boy, and his beloved home city of Belfast was plunged into sectarian violence. Jude Hill plays Buddy, a stand-in for the Oscar-nominee, with a wondrousness. He’s playing outside when a fight breaks out, and Molotov cocktails start flying. Aside from this explosive opening, the Troubles merely hover in the background like an anxious migraine.
Buddy, his siblings and friends are all too young to understand why he and his Protestant family are supposed to hate their Catholic neighbours. His tolerant parents (played warmly by Jamie Dornan and Caitriona Balfe) don’t really understand either, but they must keep their family safe.
Buddy’s father (simply credited as pa) is absent a lot, working in London as a labourer. He has put his family in debt, with the matriarch (credited as ma) needing to keep the family together with him away so much. Pa wants to leave Northern Ireland and start a safe life in England, but ma can’t imagine living anywhere else by Belfast.
Branagh isn’t interested in recounting the Troubles, how they got there and how dangerous it was growing up in the area. Instead, he captures the resilient spirit of the community, the gentle Irish humour and the scrappiness that made his neighbours get back up time and time again. All of this is set to an upbeat soundtrack of classic songs, predominantly by Belfast legend Van Morrison.
Not much happens plot-wise in Belfast. Buddy has a crush on a girl in his class who he wants to impress, but his real love is cinema. His regular visits to the cinema are the only thing in colours in this black and white film. The foreshadowing of Branagh’s career as a filmmaker is a bit on the nose, but any cinema fan will recognise the look of wonder as the screen lights up.
There are no sentimental tears to be shed in Belfast. Branagh smartly balances out the sweet and sharpness of growing up not knowing if a Molotov cocktail would come flying through your windows. Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench bring humour and heart as his ailing grandfather and sharp-tongued grandmother.
Seen through the eyes of a 9-year-old, there is no politics in Belfast either. Politics and religion are just big concepts that stop Buddy and his friends from doing what they want to. Pa tells him not to perform any tasks for the loyalists, and his cousin explains her theory on how you can tell the difference between Catholics and Protestants. Buddy doesn’t concern himself with the nuances of his surroundings, not when there is math homework to complete and sweets to eat. Any hint of the troubles is overheard through background television news bulletins and adults whispering in the stairwell.
Belfast makes the period almost seem a positive experience on his life, something not all inhabitants of the city will agree with. This drama is focused on the community that has been brought together in terrible times, with everyone having grown up together. There is not a single person on the road who doesn’t know everything about their neighbour. The reality is much more profound than this film expresses, but this is clearly seen through the rose-tinted lenses of childhood. Branagh isn’t pretending this was a pleasant part of history, he was just saying that life went on despite the violence.
Belfast manages to be gentle and touching without being oversentimental. The mix of bittersweetness of the only place you’ve ever known becoming unsafe and the humour of family life is well-balanced. This is mostly due to the subtle and understated performances of the leads. Jude Hill is extraordinary as Buddy, with comic timing better than most seasoned actors. Dench and Hinds are a delight as his naughty but caring grandparents, life still in them. Balfe and Dornan, despite wafting through Belfast streets looking like models,
Belfast has perhaps had the rough edges of the Troubles smoothed out, which isn’t necessarily a negative thing. This is a surprisingly happy film with some real laugh out loud moments, helped by a skilled cast who easily balances the ups and downs of life in Northern Ireland.
Belfast is out in UK cinemas January 21st
by Amelia Harvey
Amelia is a freelance writer, frustrated novelist and occasional wrangling of international students. She is especially interested in LBGTQ culture and 1960s and 70s music. She also writes for Frame Rated, The People’s Movies and Unkempt Magazine, amongst others. Her favourite films include Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, Moulin Rouge and Closer. You can find her on Twitter @MissAmeliaNancy and letterboxd @amelianancy