Starring Jamie Dornan, Caitríona Balfe and Judi Dench, this likely Oscar contender sees director Kenneth Branagh look back at his childhood growing up in Northern Ireland.
February 03, 2022
Warm, cosy, rosy, charming, feel-good: typically when a film spins its story during The Troubles in Northern Ireland, none of these words apply. But with Belfast, Kenneth Branagh has made a movie set in its eponymous city when the Protestant-versus-Catholic violence was a constant sight, and also helmed a feature that's about a childhood spent with that conflict as a backdrop. It's an approach that only works because Branagh draws from his own experiences — the film isn't a play-by-play memoir, but it's also clearly personal. Here, it's 1969, when the actor-turned-filmmaker would've been nine years old. The movie's protagonist, Buddy (first-timer Jude Hill), is that exact age, in fact. And with the beginnings of a three-decade-long sectarian fracas bubbling and boiling around him, he navigates the usual age-appropriate antics, such as school, crushes, doting grandparents with ailing health and a potential big move.
The Troubles are a constant sight in the largely monochrome-hued film, too, and the reason Buddy's that parents are contemplating relocating to England, something they wouldn't have dreamed of otherwise. Pa (Jamie Dornan, The Tourist) already spends most of his time working there as a joiner, leaving Ma (Caitríona Balfe, Outlander) at home with Buddy and his elder brother Will (Lewis McAskie, Here Before) — with assistance from the boys' Granny (Judi Dench, Six Minutes to Midnight) and Pop (Ciarán Hinds, The Man in the Hat) — and he's been offered a new job that comes with a house. The violence swirling through Belfast has already made it to the family's street, to their hounded Catholic neighbours and, when Pa refuses to join the fray, put them on their fellow Protestants' hit list. Shifting to London (or perhaps further, to Sydney or Vancouver) would provide a new start and a safer future, but leaving all they've ever known isn't a simple decision.
Belfast's adult characters are only known as Buddy would know them, such is Branagh's commitment to seeing this story, time and place through a child's eyes as he once did. And, while there's much debate to be had between Pa and Ma about whether to go or stay, the film is filled with its young lead's joys and worries — with the prospect of never again seeing the Catholic classmate he swoons over high among the boy's concerns. Belfast isn't short on context, however, though there's zero chance that it could be mistaken for a meaty interrogation of The Troubles. Branagh weaves in examples of how the push-and-pull of the conflict that's inescapable in his neighbourhood every day, Molotov cocktails, broken windows, blazes, riots and all, puts Buddy and his family in the middle. Still, a magical view of childhood remains, including when Buddy gets thrust into the thick of the fray — where, after he returns home with looted supermarket wares, his mother marches him back to return the stolen products amid the chaos.
Branagh also indulges in an origin story, perhaps inspired by his stint in the Marvel Cinematic Universe directing the first Thor film back in 2011 (Buddy is even seen reading a Thor comic). Escaping The Troubles as much as anyone can in Belfast, the writer/director's on-screen surrogate adores seeing Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and A Christmas Carol also features — scenes that come to life in colour, unlike the bulk of the picture around them. In the process, Branagh helps trace the early steps of his own desire to become a thespian and filmmaker, which has led to everything from Shakespeare adaptations such as Much Ado About Nothing and Hamlet, to doing double duty in front of and behind the lens with Hercule Poirot duo Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile. He's played Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets' Gilderoy Lockhart, helmed Disney's live-action Cinderella, gotten villainous in Tenet, and of course, enjoyed an applauded on-stage career as well, all stemming from those first rapturous experiences watching when he was growing up.
You could also call Belfast Branagh's Roma moment, after Alfonso Cuarón also gave cinema a black-and-white vision drawn from his own childhood, although that comparison fades quickly — even with Oscar love likely to come this film's way, in nominations at least, as it did for its predecessor. Here, the Dutch angles have it, with one of Branagh's go-to stylistic moves visually reinforcing Belfast's skewed perspective. Everything that viewers see is gorgeously lensed by his regular cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos (a mainstay on everything except All Is True since 2007's Sleuth), and also fondly nostalgic as cherished memories of formative years always are, with the lean firmly towards Buddy and his subjective view. As often set to a Van Morrison soundtrack, there's no doubting that this is a portrait of the big and small moments remembered and given a tender glow far more than it's about matters of politics and religion.
As carefully and sentimentally conjured up and constructed as it is, Belfast's message remains timely as it gazes five-plus decades back. Horror and conflict stalk Buddy's working-class turf, his routine and life are shaken and upended, but hope — and the reality that life does go on — shines through. The opposing forces of comfort and change jostle around him, and this boy and his loved ones endeavour to make their way through it. Indeed, it should come as no surprise that this was Branagh's pandemic project, or that he peers back with such affection. In one of the movie's least successful touches, he even finds a way to convey that process on-screen, starting with a glossy shot of Ireland today, then literally peeking beyond a wall to venture into the past.
Branagh's best choice: his magnificent cast, although an actor who also directs guiding marvellous performances out of his key players also doesn't surprise. What's especially glorious about Hill, Dornan, Balfe, Dench and Hinds is how much their portrayals tell us about their characters in the beats between dialogue, with wide-eyed enthusiasm radiating from wonderful newcomer Hill, and Dench and Hinds perfecting Granny and Pop's world-wise lived-in dynamic, for instance. Dornan and Balfe are also exceptional; whether bickering heatedly about tax debts and far-off places or taking to the dance floor — or, in Dornan's case, belting out a big-hearted rendition of 'Everlasting Love' to give his Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar crooning a companion — they're a picture of that unceasing emotion that Branagh infuses into every element of the film. Yes, as its showcase number trumpets, that's love, which leads to a sweet, neat and light but still vivid and soulful snapshot of growing up amid swelling uncertainty.
Image: Rob Youngson / Focus Features.