Our memories make us.
A feted stage and film professional for over thirty years, Kenneth Branagh’s career has had some high points and, more recently, some low points. Although his early directorial work was widely praised, especially his Shakespeare adaptations, some of his later works, such as Murder on the Orient Express (2017) and the critically drubbed Artemis Fowl (2020), have not been bright spots in the actor/director’s resume. In eschewing the blockbuster formula for the modest and vitally warm Belfast, Branagh has returned to fine form and reminds us of his undeniable talent for storytelling.
The year is 1969, and “The Troubles” in Belfast are beginning. This review is not intended as a history lesson (indeed, neither is the film), so a brief rundown is that tensions between the Protestant and Catholic members of the community have become violent, with mobs attacking each other based on religious belief.
Buddy (Jude Hill) lives on a working-class street where all his neighbors know each other. In the film’s opening black and white sequence, he is playing with a group of other kids and brandishing a wooden sword and a bin lid as a shield. As he is called in for supper, violence erupts, and his once jocular surroundings suddenly become a war zone. Buddy’s Ma (Caitríona Balfe) uses the bin lid to shield herself and her son from projectiles being hurled indiscriminately. The street that was once a haven of neighborly goodwill is soon cordoned off with barricades and barbed wire. Belfast has changed, and Buddy’s life will soon change too.
Although the Troubles are never absent from the film, they act as a background to a family drama which exudes warmth and wit. Buddy is a precocious child who spends his time immersed in films and comics. Branagh’s semi-autobiographical writing here lets us know just how important the art of make-believe is to the young boy. Whilst Buddy is spellbound by film, he is equally spellbound by the storytelling of his kindly Pop (Ciarán Hinds) and Granny (Judi Dench) or the wild tales his cousin tells him, trying to explain how to differentiate between a Catholic and a Protestant. Choosing the lens of a young boy to be the focus of how the audience understands the political situation in Northern Ireland is a canny move by Branagh. It would be easy to get weighed down by the encroaching bleakness of the situation as it unfolds, but not fully grasping what is happening and being shocked by the sudden outbursts of violence is far more effective a technique.
Buddy’s Pa (Jamie Dornan) is a tradesman who works mainly in London and can only afford to return home for short periods. Left to deal with not only raising Buddy and his brother Will (Lewis McAskie) is Balfe’s Ma. She is exhausted by trying to keep her family safe and financially stable (Pa owes back taxes), and there is strife in her marriage. Ma and Pa are a loving couple, but there is a sense that Pa has been somewhat feckless in the past and is a little too keen on gambling. Nonetheless, Dornan and Balfe inhabit the couple in such a way as to leave little doubt that there is much love between them. When Pa starts to question whether leaving Belfast for somewhere safer would be wise, Ma objects stating that wherever they went, they would be hated or outsiders, and they would lose all that connects them to their community.
Branagh balances telling Buddy’s story by injecting it with both humor and pathos. Buddy is in love with his Catholic classmate Catherine (Olive Tennant) and devoted to his grandparents. The world of adults and their troubles is only half-glimpsed. Belfast, despite all that is happening around him, is Buddy’s home. All he wants to do is go to the cinema, spend time with his family, and marry Catherine.
Pa’s refusal to join a side in the conflict marks him and the whole family. The issue comes close to home when local tough guy Billy Clayton (Colin Morgan) starts using Will to collect milk bottles — an innocent-sounding enough occupation until one realizes they are then used to make Molotov Cocktails. The troubles are reaching into Buddy’s home, and Ma can’t keep her family safe on her own, especially when Pa’s absences leave them vulnerable. Leaving Belfast is something that she doesn’t want to do, but as tensions escalate, her family’s survival may depend on it.
Belfast features an extraordinary cast. Jude Hill is perfect in his screen debut. The power of Branagh’s film can be largely attributed to his performance. Capturing childhood on screen can be a tricky task, and often it boils down to the right casting choice and the steady hand of a director to bring the actor’s skill to life. To say that Hill is charming is somewhat an understatement, the young performer is the soul of the film. Caitríona Balfe, Ford v Ferrari (2019), and Jamie Dornan, Fifty Shades of Grey (2015) both do excellent work as Ma and Pa. Balfe manages to communicate Ma’s frustrations, passions, and deep love with ease and sympathy. Dornan is charming as Pa, a man who knows he’s often on the wrong foot but has humor and warmth to spare. Ciarán Hinds, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011), and Judi Dench, Skyfall (2012), both bring their considerable skills to the film. Hinds combines wisdom and wit, and his scenes with Hill have a heartrending authenticity to them.
Belfast is a simple story about complex times. Those looking for a deeply political film will not find it; instead, it is a tender piece about family and place. Branagh’s most personal film is his best in a very long time. It’s a small story but a beautifully rendered one, and although there is the tendency for it to fall on the side of saccharine at times, it never gives way to bathos. Immerse yourself in Belfast and be rewarded at its modest yet fulsome riches.
4 / 5 – Recommended
Reviewed by Nadine Whitney