Directed by Kenneth Branagh.
Starring Jude Hill, Jamie Dornan, Caitríona Balfe, Judi Dench, Ciarán Hinds and Colin Morgan.
In the midst of the Troubles, a young boy and his parents struggle with the idea that their future might have to lie somewhere other than the city they have always called home.
Kenneth Branagh has put down his blockbuster toys for Belfast, which unfolds as a handsome, monochrome ode to the titular city. It’s set amid the terror and turmoil of the Troubles, but it would be wrong to classify it as a film about the conflict. The likes of Yann Demange’s pulse-pounding thriller ’71 and Paul Greengrass’s Bloody Sunday provide a more intense representation of the time period, but Belfast goes in the other direction. It’s a movie about warmth and connection at a time when the world appears to be on fire.
Buddy (Jude Hill) is a Protestant kid, living with his mother (Caitríona Balfe) and his joiner father (Jamie Dornan), who makes regular trips to England for work. He’s horrified and confused when his Catholic neighbours are targeted by violence and, as the danger and destruction intensifies, the family have to weigh up whether they can stay in the city.
With that in mind, Belfast is not a film about the Troubles. It’s about roots, digging deep into the cobbled streets and crowded sitting rooms of a neighbourhood in which doors were once left unlocked and everybody knows everybody else. “There is no ‘our side’ and ‘their side’ in our street,” says Dornan’s character. It’s a deeply personal – and indeed semi-autobiographical – piece of work from Branagh, who smuggles real heart and emotional sophistication into a film that is able to remain deceptively light, despite the febrile nature of a community scythed apart by sectarian tension.
The decision to frame the story from a child’s perspective is a smart one, with newcomer Jude Hill an effervescent bundle of pure energy. His bloodstream palpably runs hot with joy, which makes it all the more devastating when he is thrust into the heart of a conflict he’s too young to understand. His concerns are not about religious differences – they’re about how he can get close to the pretty, smart girl he fancies in his class. In a seating plan governed by test results, his only option is to study hard. The sacrifices we make for romance.
Balfe and Dornan do equally strong work in supporting roles which require them to shoulder much of the more serious and nuanced elements of the storytelling. Ciarán Hinds and a crotchety, scene-stealing Judi Dench, meanwhile, are able to provide laughs aplenty as Buddy’s grandparents, while Colin Morgan steps away from his usually charming persona to portray a glowering, threatening member of a paramilitary group. It’s a uniformly strong ensemble, with everyone buying in to the delicate balance Branagh strikes between the serious and the silly.
Indeed, there’s as much magic here as there is darkness. The film begins with full colour shots of the city today, before an ingenious transition transplants the audience into a monochrome reaction of the 60s. Flashes of colour feature throughout whenever the characters are exposed to culture, whether at the theatre or in the reflected glow of the cinema screen. A sequence in which Buddy and his family are enthralled to the point of physical reactions by the car stunts of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is as affectionate an ode to the power of the big screen as I’ve seen in years. It’s proof that even in the greyest of worlds, movies have the power to bring the full kaleidoscope of colour seeping through.
Belfast might ultimately be a little lightweight, but that’s as much a strength as it is a hindrance. Branagh knows this is a misty-eyed, nostalgic look back at his own childhood, and so it’s only fitting that it paints in the sort of broad strokes a child would remember. It’s about first love, family bonding and the moments of carefree elation that brighten the darkest days – watch out for Dornan and Balfe sharing a joyous dance to Love Affair’s 1968 hit Everlasting Love.
Oscar frontrunner status has been bestowed, but that gives the movie a level of expectation which could prove to be an albatross around its neck. It’s not hard-going and never feels like history homework. It’s frothy, funny and overflowing with the sort of charm you’d expect from Sir Ken himself.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.