Belfast will have you leaving cinemas with the hope that comes with new horizons, and the sorrow of remembering those we leave behind. It’s an immersive interwoven tale of two stories, that should have been separate in a just universe – but under the oppressive times of The Troubles, a story about struggle, sectarianism, and strife bleeds into and intrudes on a coming-of-age whimsy, otherwise brimming with the nostalgia and warmth of youth. If you want a history lesson through a semi-autobiographical period drama, ripped straight from the life and times of acclaimed writer-director Kenneth Branagh, or if you just want to see a wonderfully-crafted and executed film, I highly recommend you go and see Belfast at your earliest convenience.
Our audience surrogate is nine-year-old Buddy, who we’re introduced to with a long-take one-shot stroll through his home street and neighbourhood – full of life and joy – culminating in our first glimpse of him, playing make believe with a wooden sword and a trash-can lid shield. But the reality of 1969 Belfast ensues, as Loyalists initiate a small-scale riot as an intimidation tactic against Catholic residents – people who we’ve just seen, peacefully co-existing with their Protestant neighbours, not even minutes ago.
Those who’ve not studied their history will likely be shocked, but this is just a taste of the true Troubles, and still etched in living memory and collective consciousness. Buddy, through his innocence, earnestness, optimism, and youth, deserves and should’ve earned a worry-free life, where he could be left to live and grow in peace. But it’s the intrusion into what would’ve been an otherwise nostalgic, warm, and whimsical coming-of-age story, by a tense, dark, and disturbingly real period drama portraying The Troubles, as the fears, stresses, and violence of the adults in his life and neighbourhood blend in and bleed over.
Buddy’s Ma and Pa are fully-realised, three-dimensional characters, brilliantly acted by Caitríona Balfe and Jamie Dornan. Their story is one of struggle, as they contend with money and tax problems, the responsibilities of looking after their parents, as well as raising their children. The beleaguered, well-meaning, and trying-their-best working class parents fall into common tropes and archetypes, but are elevated by their personal arcs and stories. Pa’s prominence as a popular working man in the neighbourhood seems to be an infinite wellspring of tension, as he’s targeted by local criminal and Ulster Loyalist Billy Clanton. I never thought I’d be able to see Colin Morgan as anything but the titular main character of British early Gen-Z’s comfort show Merlin, but his performance here puts that thought to rest.
Clanton fully embodies the illogic, cruelty, and total submission to hatred of sectarianism. He’s an outsider, imposing his will and world-view on communities that reject it – he’s completely given in to the vicious cycle that both created him, and which he perpetrates through his violence and criminality. Dornan’s ‘Pa’ opposes him, too intimidated to outright reject him, but too principled to even for a moment consider taking his side.
Balfe’s ‘Ma’ too has her own struggles, raising Buddy and his older brother, Will, in Pa’s week-long absences, as he works in England to support them. She must contend with the slowly dawning realisation that Belfast, her Belfast, is no longer the place she once knew from her days as a child herself. She is unwilling to fully open her eyes, and see what The Troubles is doing to the only place she’s ever known, instead projecting her own happy childhood memories onto Buddy and Will. She rejects Pa’s proposals to relocate to safer Sydney and Vancouver, but she takes shelter in the Belfast that she once knew, and now only exists as a mental image, long past. For her, The Troubles, while a very real threat, is just a passing event that they’ll soon see the back of. It’s this dissonance that drives her ever-increasing stress, along with the ever-mounting threat posed by Clanton and others like him.
Buddy’s story, by comparison, is light-hearted, bright, and simple. His worldly concerns are dominated by his pre-romantic relationship with classmate Catherine. He’s motivated to do better at primary school so he can sit closer to her, and wants to do his project about the moon landing with her. In this, he takes advice from his Grandparents, played by the legendary Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench, who delight with their wonderful portrayals of venerable warmth and dispensing of folk wisdom. But Buddy’s story, nor Buddy himself, doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and he intrudes on both the story of his parents, and their story intrudes upon his. Buddy bears witness to the arguments of his parents: creeping down the stairs, and eavesdropping when he should be sleeping; hearing his mother’s sobs over the noise of his Television Westerns, after an angry phone conversation with his father; being used as a prop in Pa’s arguments to relocate the family abroad. But their story makes its own incursions into his as well: Clanton confronts Buddy in an attempt to pass a message to his Pa; He’s swept up into a mob looting a Catholic-owned shop – with Belfast in the grips of The Troubles, Buddy is never afforded the comforting, insulating barrier between the evils of the adult world, and the worry-free world of a child.
Buddy’s response to The Troubles he, his community, and his family face is the greatest strength of the film. In any other, Buddy would be a mere prop, to ratchet up the stakes for the main characters – the parents, dealing with the seminal issue of their time. Instead, their issues are the background to Buddy’s coming-of-age story, and he the focus. Belfast is based on Kenneth Branagh’s own life, and his own experiences, leaving Belfast behind as a nine-year-old. We see as Buddy achieves escapism, with film, television, and theatre. It’s the choice to show these momentary bouts of escapism in full colour that I find thematically interesting. It’s an inspired use of technique, by a master of his craft – we’ve seen black and white be misused time and time again, to add an element of artificial gravitas and profundity by those imitating the greats. Belfast is clearly not an example of that – with the black and white empowering the already chokingly oppressive atmosphere of life under the shadow of The Troubles. Buddy’s family achieves temporary relief, watching films like One Million Years B.C., and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, allowing them to forget the darkness surrounding them on the other three walls. Even when watching Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, they’re surprised – acknowledging amongst themselves the depths of their immersion into the film, as they lean forwards in their seats as the titular car goes careening off a cliff, only to rise back up as it flies away unscathed. Belfast is of course semi-autobiographical, and with Buddy as a stand-in for Branagh, it certainly explains where his passion for stage and film came from. I even caught a brief glimpse of Buddy reading a Thor comic, which Branagh would of course go on to direct the film adaptation of in 2011.
The performances of the adult actors has to be commended, but towering above them is that of newcomer Jude Hill, in his feature film debut, jumping into the deep end at ten years old and taking the lead role in a character-based art film. The greatest responsibility I ever held at ten was helping put up the tent at Scout camp, and even now as a full-grown adult he’s got me beat in terms of shouldering responsibility. He imbues Buddy with an implacable innocence, and youthful optimism, that even The Troubles can’t keep down. He brings the brightness essential to this film being as excellent as it is – making it more than just a period drama, but a fully-realised snapshot of life.
Belfast is probably going to swipe a few Oscars, and deservedly so. I can’t think of a flaw to criticise, Belfast resolves every thread, develops every main character, great care was clearly taken in all aspects of its creation – and it tells a wonderful, heartfelt story. Sincere congratulations have to be offered to Branagh, the actors – especially Jude Hill – as well as the crew. I have a feeling that more congratulations will be joining that come March 27th.