Belfast itself is a great city, and this nostalgic trip back to the late 1960s, with Kenneth Branagh on Writing/Directing duties, is a homage to the Northern Irish capital as well as a journey into his youth. While there are memories good and bad, this story focuses on family alongside the spirit and pure innocence of childhood amidst any situation.
While we should all be aware of The Troubles, as they’re titled, 1969 was a historically significant year and during that August, the political and sectarian violence truly kicked off, although it’d been brewing for a while. And while Derry saw the brunt of the brutality, across the country tensions flared up, and eventually the Catholic and Protestant districts were separated by peace lines.
Branagh’s Belfast sits at the start of this timeline, where young Buddy (an exceptional introduction performance by Jude Hill) lives with his family in a mainly protestant area, with a few Catholic families around. However, one afternoon his life is thrown into disarray when the early scuffles and attacks begin in his community, and they’re confined in the middle. But here’s the thing, Belfast (the film) isn’t a depressing retelling of the Troubles, it’s Buddy’s viewpoint. He may be witnessing the turmoil, but much of his life remains as a child, running around with friends, getting up to no good in the local shop, loving time with his Grandparents and unknowingly falling in love with a girl at Primary School. But, when the Troubles gather steam, his Dad (Jamie Dornan) wants him and his family to leave and move to England, where he already has a better job away from the conflicts.
Buddy’s Mother is played by Caitríona Balfe, who gives a fantastically natural performance, and her character is stuck between wanting to stay in her home country, and keeping the kids settled there, and trying to see the bigger picture. Dornan is Buddy’s Dad, and while works away, comes home to try to make her see that’d be better for all. They’re a tightknit family despite a few issues that probably every couple goes through. Things aren’t always perfect because life is tough but, at the end of the day, most of us will make the right choices for each other – and that’s conveyed here.
In truth, the family tree is perfectly cast with Judi Dench as Granny, and Ciarán Hinds as Pop. They both hold a gravitas within their characters which imprints onto young Buddy, with stories, with affection and with a lot of heart. Buddy’s older brother, Will, is played by Lewis McAskie and he’s extremely focused with moments to show that family is also important to him. Oh, and Colin Morgan pops up as a baddie to.
At some point, Branagh decided to live through his semi-biographical story in black and white and an early transition from the titles, and establishing shots of the great city, from colour into monochrome works impressively. We’re also given exquisite shots and framing from cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos, whose camera work and scene setting gives us a balanced palette of reality and an edge of documentary, with more than a few instants offering up a theatre-like setting – and this is surely a story that’d translate to the stage.
Belfast is Buddy’s view, and while there’s an early moment with an almost raging Priest telling stories of sacrifice and such, you can understand it’s a child’s view, where the drama and fear feel bigger than they are. But, overall, what wins the day is his youthful positivity, which is ever present right down the centre. Branagh’s story highlights normal families trying to do the best they can with what they’ve got. He doesn’t get bogged down in the classic sense, there’s a light touch here to everything, and in truth – when you think about it – that’s how most of us live day-to-day anyway, despite what the news might make you think.
This nostalgia trip is beautifully created, like an old photograph of time and memory, well-crafted and with a strong indie film vibe. It’s feel-good, it’s respectful and a film layered with Van Morrison is fine by me. When you’re throwing in naturally funny moments, with fine storytelling and Irish voices of all kinds, it’s easy to see why audiences have adored it because it’s a genuinely nice film, and sometimes? That’s all right.
There’s smart extras to, although I’m glad they stuck with the ending we got because the alternative from Branagh, who also stars, feels out of place and is somewhat self-indulgent. Although, I can understand why it’s there – and why it wasn’t used, but I could also see that final shot on stage as well, so maybe it’ll be re-worked for that one day.
The short featurettes also offer us a fine insight into the documentary-like aspects of the film. Of Irish extended-family life, of Belfast itself and how they created the world they wanted to portray. I also enjoyed the time with costume designer, Charlotte Walter, and how they endeavoured to capture the spirit of the era, keeping a vitality piercing through, even in darker times.
There’s also a short featurette that talks to the cast about their ‘Inner Child’ and things they either loved or hated as a kid, I wish this had been longer, as those insights are always entertaining. There’s also some deleted scenes and feature commentary with Kenneth Branagh to enjoy after you’ve either revisited or enjoyed for the first time!