Sentimental and easy to watch, Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast traces the director’s early life with a strong ensemble and true passion behind it all.
Jude Hill stars as Buddy, a nine-year-old living a relatively normal life in Beflast, Northern Ireland in 1969. In August of 1969, a group of Protestants stage a riot against the Catholics on Buddy’s street, leading to barricades and a constant police presence. Buddy’s father (Jamie Dornan) is frequently gone for work in England while his mother (Caitriona Balfe) tends to Buddy and his brother Will (Lewis McAskie). Alongside the family are Buddy’s grandfather (Ciaran Hinds) and grandmother (Judi Dench).
Throughout the rest of 1969 and into 1970, Buddy and his family have to navigate the political troubles as well as their financial and personal burdens. When Buddy’s dad is offered a chance to move to England, will the family endure and continue to live in Belfast, or will they get a fresh start away from the strife?
Buddy’s mom wants to stay around what they have known their whole lives, while his dad wants to get his kids away from the chaos. As the film progresses, Buddy and his mom’s insistence to stay seems more and more illogical. Opportunity after opportunity arises to allow the family to leave, and every excuse is made to put off the decision.
There is also a rose-colored version of how your parents are remembered. Buddy’s mom is nothing but elegant, despite having little money or vibrant social life. Buddy’s dad is also rakishly handsome, but hopelessly devoted to his wife. There is never a whiff of any infidelity, and any marital strife is centered around money. Branagh also includes a specific scene where Buddy’s dad goes out of his way to compliment his mother on the job she has done without him there.
The black-and-white adds to the nostalgia factor, with occasional bits of color shining through. Branagh utilizes this as the rarity that it should be and doesn’t overplay his hand. In addition, the lack of color gives the film a regal shine that it otherwise would not have in color. The film is handsomely lensed but choppily edited. The film never has a real sense of time.
Balfe and Dornan steer the narrative more than Hill. Balfe in particular conveys this enormous sense of respect from the film and her swings from tender and harsh always feel earned. Dornan doesn’t have much character to develop. His role is to be more of the ideal of what the best-case scenario for a relatively absent father could be. His chemistry with Balfe is palpable.
Hill is the driver of the film but is still allowed to be a child. He isn’t overly precocious or with a false sense of maturity. Generally, he is a whiny, needy kid. His worries are limited to the girl he likes in class or whether he will do well in math. He is not actively involved with his parents’ actual problems and doesn’t interject in them. Hill does a fine job of acting either oblivious or objectively terrified depending on the situation.
Hinds and Dench are utilized more as plot devices than anything else. Both are their usual, dependable selves, but they don’t have much agency as characters. Both characters are there to help others or give emotional weight to the family’s decision to stay or leave Belfast. Despite that, both are relentlessly charming and play off each other well.
Audiences could be decided by the feel-good belief that this film has a reputation of having. There are some scenes of true danger and disappointment, but it all does end up with a feeling of triumph, no matter how unearned.
I completely understand why people love Belfast, but to me, it felt like a series of disconnected memories. Branagh’s passion for his place of birth is apparent, but I never felt it cohesively come together. It doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it.