Kenneth Branagh is an accomplished actor, equally at home treading the boards in Shakespearean theatre as appearing on the silver screen. He’s directed over 20 films. Yet a significant number of these are the kind you explain by starting with, “It’s not a bad film per se, but…” Belfast, his autobiographical depiction of childhood in late 1960’s Northern Ireland is not without problems, but manages to transcend these to be a truly affecting tale.
The life of the film’s protagonist Buddy, who represents a young Branagh, seems idyllic on one level. He achieves near the top of his class, is surrounded by a loving extended family and though not well off, rarely goes without, receiving the odd coin from affectionate grandparents for a sweet or two. In this context, Buddy’s greatest challenge is engineering a seat in class next to his crush, the cute blonde girl. There are lots of laughs and a smile is never far away from anyone’s face.
On another level, Buddy’s life is hellish. He is a Protestant living on a street rife with violence, with local Catholics on the verge of being evicted and traffic intersections blockaded by both English soldiers and local vigilantes. Fires, bombs and riots are normal fare.
The balance the film finds between idyllic and hellish achieves a kind of wistful meditation on the nature of distant memories.
It should be noted though that to some extent this is also the film’s notable flaw. In Branagh’s retelling, the internecine conflict of The Troubles is something to be endured without picking a side. In one admittedly lovely scene, Buddy enquires about the correct answer to the question, “Are you Catholic or Protestant?” Should one lie or attempt a double bluff by telling the truth? In their home street, Catholics and Protestants live side by side and conflict only comes from outside. The almost banality of such moments speaks of their truth, but in this way, Branagh sits on the fence with contemporary audiences. In Belfast, religion itself is the problem, rather than the adherents of either faith. Local people don’t really care about all of that and just want to get on.
Having said that, there’s enough else going on in Belfast to distract the viewer from this flaw. The cast is truly wonderful. First-timer Jude Hill as Buddy is simply a revelation, carrying a surprising emotional weight for one so young. Sharing that heft is Irish actress Caitriona Balfe as the resilient wife, dealing with an oft-absent husband working in England (Jamie Dornan, also Irish), while trying to establish a moral compass in her young sons amidst a chaotic world. The moment where Mum drags Buddy back to a shop to return some shoplifted washing powder during a riot rings more of truth than incredulity.
Judy Dench and Ciarán Hinds, as the grandparents, highlight Branagh’s willingness to let his actors ply their craft. Extreme close-ups reveal the wisdom borne of age in every craggy valley. The film is gorgeously shot in rich black and white. Haris Zambarloukos as director of cinematography has worked with Branagh many times and that relationship has produced a film where every shot is frameable.
With a soundtrack of Van Morrison songs (some a little obvious at times), Belfast achieves a kind of glistening memory of childhood that steers just the right side of over sentimentality. It is sweet but never sickly, incredibly charming without descending into smugness.
Belfast, rated M and directed by Kenneth Branagh, is currently showing in cinemas.
Editor’s note 21/02/2022: Interested in learning more about film, the Arts, and the many intersections with life and faith? Jonathan Sargeant teaches THL256 Theology and the Arts in second semester at St Francis College. Contact Sheilagh, the College Registrar, on 07 5514 7403 or via email@example.com for more information.