A wondrously nostalgic look at his childhood, Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast is a heartfelt and emotionally powerful piece of cinema. Branagh has crafted a film where whimsy and realism sit side-by-side so the viewer can visit a Belfast which is as much a figment of the filmmaker’s 50 year-old memory as it is a document charting the start of Northern Ireland’s civil unrest in the late 1960s.
A film steeped in cinema, Belfast has hints of semi-autobiographical works from other great filmmakers – François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (Les Quatre Cents Coups) and Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma. Unlike those directors, Branagh isn’t interested in delving into the darkness of the fractious Belfast from his youth. As a writer and director, Branagh wants to show his childhood from the perspective of his ten year-old self. The filmmaker’s on-screen proxy, Buddy (Jude Hill) shows us the story with wide-eyed wonder. Be that the moments of flash mob violence, to the joys of afternoon’s watching movies, there’s an exuberance to how young Buddy sees the world. Yes, there is danger, but Buddy never fully realises its true extent.
With financial troubles and local violence on the rise, Buddy’s Ma and Pa (Caitríona Balfe and Jamie Dornan) begin to believe that life might be better for their young family if they leave Belfast and start new lives elsewhere. This seems like a lot of upheaval for young Buddy who doesn’t want to leave his home or his grandparents (Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench). Buddy’s world is changing and he’s going to be forced into accepting this change whether he likes it or not.
It might be called Belfast, but Branagh’s film takes place solely within a mile radius of Buddy’s North Belfast home. Again, this taps into the perspective of our young protagonist – one mile might as well be the entire world. From real-life space travel on the news to Star Trek and films like High Noon and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Buddy gets to see everything he needs to from his limited vantage point.
Opening with a sumptuous montage of modern day Belfast, set to the strains of Van Morrison’s song Down To Joy, Branagh’s regular cinematographer, Haris Zambarloukos, switches to luscious monochrome as we fall back into the city’s past. It’s expertly shot and Zambarloukos and Branagh introduce tiny flashes of colour to signify the power of cinema as Buddy absorbs movies on the big screen. This imagery is perfectly accompanied by the choice selection of Morrison’s music which punctuates the onscreen action – the city’s most successful musical son and its most famous filmmaker working together.
A film like Belfast lives or dies by the performance of its young star and newcomer Jude Hill certainly gives an impressive turn as Buddy. It’s never cloying and Hill manages to perfectly capture the wide-eyed sense of wonder. In a sense it’s a triumph that it happened. The adults in the cast also impress, all matching the tone that Branagh sets as director. Be that the snarly wit of Hinds and Dench or the optimist hope of Dornan and Balfe.
Belfast is a film which might have been scuttled by an imperfect balance. It could have been too saccharine or too serious or too shallow or too whimsical. However Kenneth Branagh has managed to make the elements work in unison to ensure that Belfast is a film which will resonate with all who watch it.