Film review: Kenneth Branagh takes us into his childhood with ‘Belfast’

The coming-of-age story takes place during the Troubles of 1969


Kenneth Branagh, the writer and director of “Belfast,” introduces his new film in a classic Hollywood way, a camera zooming over the Northern Ireland city, showing its shipyards, then honing in on a working-class neighborhood, with kids playing in the streets.

The cinematography is in black and white and shot by Haris Zambarloukos, and Branagh says that he chose to shoot in “Hollywood black and white” because it makes everything sort of “velvety, silky, satiny.”

And since “Belfast” focuses on the world view of a 9-year-old boy, Buddy, Branagh says he wanted to convey how Buddy might see his rather prosaic surroundings in the heart of a Northern Ireland neighborhood as larger than life.

Buddy, in case you haven’t guessed it, is a stand-in for Branagh as a child, and “Belfast” is by far the most autobiographical and personal film the director has ever made.

Branagh says he began writing “Belfast” at the start of the pandemic when he was in lockdown like everyone else. The coronavirus lockdown had similarities to another time in his early life growing up in Belfast, he says, when in 1969 the city was rocked by sectarian violence and everyone retreated behind barricades and stayed at home.

In press notes, Branagh remembers a transition from a kind of idyll — a neighborliness and community — that is “turned upside down by the arrival of a mob who passes through. … When they’re gone, the street is literally ripped up by worried people who now feel they have to barricade themselves against another attack.”

It’s a classic setup — universal in scope — when a child realizes he or she will have to “put away childish things” and begin to face adulthood.

The success of the movie hinges on the likability of Buddy, and Branagh has found a future star in Jude Hill, who’s in nearly every scene of “Belfast.”

Buddy is steeped in Hollywood lore, watching westerns on TV and gaining a clear sense of good guys vs. bad guys. We’re seeing his town through his eyes, through his experiences at school and in the streets, and especially in how he sees his family.

His parents are not named; they’re just Ma and Pa, played by Catriona Balfe and Jamie Dornan. Buddy sees them as having an incredible love, even though Ma gets upset with Pa sometimes over money issues. Pa is also frequently not at home. He’s a joiner who has been forced to seek work in England because of better pay. He returns to Belfast every other week or so, and spends lots of time playing with Buddy and his older brother Will.

Each time Pa returns home, he brings Buddy a gift — a new toy car, and Buddy prizes his collection.

Buddy also spends a lot of time after school with the parents of Pa, Granny and Pop (Judi Dench and Ciaran Hinds). Granny dispenses wisdom with a dose of dry wit, while Pops helps Buddy navigate the perils of classrooms and math with a bit of rascally advice and humor.

But all of the adults in Buddy’s life begin to wonder whether they can stay in the close-knit community as threats of violence grow larger. Buddy’s father doesn’t want to join his fellow Protestants in their fights with Catholics, and that makes his family a target, in a way. And Buddy is being drawn into situations where he’s being manipulated by fellow Protestants.

All of this plays out to a musical score dominated by the songs of Belfast legend Van Morrison. The soundtrack features eight songs from his archive, plus a new one written for the film.

All of the performances are excellent, with Dench and Hinds showing why they have become two of the biggest stars in British movies. But as said before, the movie depends on the audience’s ability to see themselves — and their lives — in Buddy’s experiences. The young Hill makes you love him.

Look for “Belfast” to figure largely in the end-of-year awards races. It won the highly coveted People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival. Over the last nine years, every People’s Choice winner has gone on to be nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.

Charles Ealy
Charles Ealy
Charles Ealy is a former movies editor for The Dallas Morning News and Austin American-Statesman.

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