Opening with a sumptuous montage of modern day Belfast, set to the strains of Van Morrison’s song Down To Joy, Kenneth 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 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.
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.