director: kenneth branagh (henry v, murder on the orient express)
starring: jamie dornan, caitriona balfe, jude hill, and judi dench
REVIEWER: nick tonkin
A semi-autobiographical film which chronicles the life of a working class family and their young son's childhood during the tumult of the late 1960s in the Northern Ireland capital.
Belfast is the latest project from the legendary Kenneth Branagh, who took up the task of both writing and directing this wonderful comedy-drama. Belfast is set in the titular city, following the lives of a young Northern Irish Protestant family in the early days of The Troubles.
Belfast is full to the brim with great performances, with standouts Caitríona Balfe as Ma, Judi Dench as Granny and Ciarán Hinds as her husband, Pop. But it is with newcomer Jude Hill’s excellent performance as Buddy, a wide eyed and inquisitive 9-year old, that we experience the heart of the film. Belfast is largely presented from Buddy’s experience, and this conceit is used to great effect.
Belfast quickly establishes what must surely have been the jarring, terrifying and surreal shift from everyday life, to the besieged streets of Belfast during The Troubles. In the opening scene, Ma stands in the street calling Buddy home for his supper. We see a community where everyone knows each other, with children playing in the streets. The message is passed along the grapevine to the little Buddy that Ma is calling for him. On his way home, he sees his neighborhood hit with its first dose of violence; rioters burn cars, break windows and terrorize homeowners and Ma is still calling for her Buddy.
The film is adept at handling powerful moments like these, without losing gravitas when addressing them through Buddy’s point of view. The little guy cares for his family, misses his Pa when he is away in England for work, and wants to stay in Belfast with his friends and grandparents. These are core human concerns, uncorrupted by politics or agendas. It really is to Branagh’s credit to choose Buddy as the focal point for the story as the film presents a compelling tale that even audiences unfamiliar with The Troubles will find they can relate to.
With a score provided by Van Morrison, a great roster of Northern Irish and British actors, and filming partially completed in Belfast itself, the film earns its feeling of authenticity. Indeed, Kenneth Branagh himself grew up in Belfast and much has been made to what extent the film chronicles that part of his life.
Belfast is a wonderful film; blending poignancy, touches of somberness with charming humor through a strong cast, great writing and an impressive performance by the young Jude Hill as Buddy.