Written and directed by Kenneth Branagh
Hometown nostalgia runs deep in Branagh’s Belfast, a dewy-eyed film about coming of age in ugly times. Set as the The Troubles get underway Belfast in Northern Ireland in the 60s, it follows in the small footsteps of Buddy, a school-aged boy, who suddenly sees his neighborhood under siege and his family reeling in the upheaval of civil war and economic anxiety.
Bleak subject matter filtered through the eyes of a child is not exactly new or rare, stretching back to To Kill A Mockingbird (1962) and you only have to look to The Florida Project (2017) as a recent standout. There’s no shortage of power in having life’s messes laid bare by children’s direct manner and black-and-white worldview, but as a filmmaker you also tether your fate to the prowess of said child actor. Branagh, thankfully, has found someone special in Jude Hill, who brings out both the candor and comedy of life with ease, and around him Branagh’s assembled a cast that both hold their own and manage a remarkable chemistry with this boy, from his grandparents played by Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench (both Oscar-nominated) to his parents played by Jamie Dornan and Caitriona Balfe.
The talks between Hinds’ Pop and Buddy have a special charm to them, starting with them hashing out life’s big questions for a young boy (how do I get this girl to like me?) to later conversations that touch on life’s fleeting nature and the anticipation of grief, as the old man’s past as a coal miner catches up to him.
What Buddy witnesses, either directly or through observing others, is what Branagh really chases, because as Belfast wraps itself in history and uses civil unrest as his backdrop, the violence (and threat thereof) takes a backseat to the point of being a setup for the real action, and for anyone who’s hungry for blood and bodily consequence, Branagh’s likely the wrong director for you.
A long, drawn-out battle between Irish loyalists faithful to the United Kingdom and Irish republicans envisioning a united country, The Troubles was often simplified to a battle between Protestants and Catholics, and Belfast adopts that same line, dividing an otherwise idyllic street into a “us vs. them”-dichotomy rooted in religion.
Hate is taught, common wisdom (and perhaps just common sense) tells us, and it’s this dichotomy, and rejection thereof, that Branagh wants to get at, playing at every string to preach the virtues of seeing beyond arbitrary signifiers to get at the person underneath. Be it the words of family, or the media consumed by Buddy, as the television in his living room lights up with High Noon (1952) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), two films about men who dare stand up for what is right, fully aware of the possible consequences, Branagh says it takes a village (and a little television).
These are the best parts of Belfast. Its love of life, the not-cloying sweetness it infuses through Buddy’s simple escapades and interactions with the world around him, and Branagh’s love for home and its people has it glowing for its runtime.
Technically, it’s a mixed bag. Shot in black-and-white, now a tired shorthand for “historic” narratives, Branagh’s also not overtly preoccupied with style, composition and blocking, save for a few shots that stand out all the more because of that very fact. One shot shines though, as Branagh does a long take looking down at Buddy’s feet as he traverses his street the day after a violent riot that has left it in ruin. Watching his small feet tap dance around debris, broken street tiles, shouting people and panicked activity, the topic sentence of Belfast is driven home with grace: formative years, whether you like it or not.
Belfast jjjuuusstt manages to toe the line and not delve too deeply into sentimental schmaltz, staying sweet instead as Branagh’s work in inspiring his actors to fine performances lifts Belfast with charm, wit, pathos and punch, making for a moving affair and poignant presentation that will resonate all the more with a globalized audience that understand the melancholic nostalgia that comes with leaving home for the greater world beyond.