It’s weird to think that the Troubles of Northern Ireland would ever produce the “feel-good” movie of the year, but against all odds, that’s what writer/director Kenneth Branagh has done with his “most personal film” to date, Belfast. Set in 1969 in the titular city, Branagh brings us back to his own youth in this semi-autobiographical tale about a family at an impasse during the dawn of an immensely dark and violent period in history.
After a colour-soaked montage of the city of Belfast, set to a snappy new Van Morrison track, the camera pans over a wall and brings us into the largely black and white childhood of Buddy and his family. The city of Belfast at the start of the film is a wholly different city, with the streets packed with kids playing and the sense of community feeling strong, with Protestants and Catholics living on the same street without any fuss and neighbours passing the word along the street that Buddy’s Ma is looking for him for tea time.
Buddy, played by newcomer Jude Hill, is an absolute treat to watch and a name that should be considered at this year’s awards season. He’s ignorant of many things due to his young age, yet questions everything at the same time with youthful curiosity. He finds his escape in film and television, specifically fantastical and science fiction stories, such as watching Star Trek on the television set with his family, or Chitty Chitty Bang Bang on the big screen. Cinema is his escape from the dour reality he must now come to terms with as his neighbourhood he once knew as home and as a peaceful refugee is suddenly thrown into violence as tensions between the two religions reached a boiling point. The film offers little context for The Troubles apart from some news clips on the TV or radio, but since Buddy doesn’t fully understand the conflict, the movie doesn’t overly explain the conflict either.
The Troubles, while largely present in the film, act more as a backdrop for Buddy and his family. His Pa (Jamie Dornan) spends a lot of time working in England and comes back every few weeks to spend the weekends. He’s absent but cares deeply about his family. The family is up to their ears in debt and the pay is better in England, so he does what he seems in right. As the conflict begins to brew, he begins to feel the pressure from the more extreme residents of his neighbourhood to join the cause in one-way shape or form. Picking up the slack in raising Buddy and his brother is his Ma (Caitríona Balfe), who along with Buddy, carries this movie and very much should be considered for Best Actress. She’s determined to make sure her children are raised right while struggling with the finances and the mounting tensions in her neighbourhood. Rounding out Buddy’s family is his Granny (an always sarcastic Judy Dench) and his Pops (Ciarán Hinds), who is very much present in Buddy’s life.
The film ends up being more about this family and their own struggles in life and how the Troubles are affecting life for them, rather than being a look at the Troubles themselves. Usually, films about the conflict tend to be about the violence and the politics, but Belfast tries to remain hopeful and optimistic, even in the darkest of times. To that end, it’s a testament to Branagh, who based the film partly on his own youth, that the film ends up being as good as it is. The camera almost never leaves Buddy and pans through the streets and rooms with him almost all the time. The camera never feels staged, but often tracks and pans with the cast, letting us wander through the street that Buddy lives on.
Most of the film is confined to Buddy’s street or the surrounding area, so we have a sense of understanding in the community, which is mixed Protestant and Catholic. As the helicopters fly overhead and the riots begin to get worse, Buddy’s family must decide what is best for them in the short term and the long term. The film, which was shot in black and white, feels both trapped in time and without hope. But through the bleakness, there’s always something that keeps Buddy’s family going. Likewise, there’s plenty of witty Irish humour to keep us laughing despite everything, usually at their own expense.
In the end, Belfast ends up being a powerful film about family, environment and hope. Jude Hill as Buddy is an absolute scene-stealer and is a young talent that we should keep our eyes on. Branagh has made a deeply personal and intimate film that’s a portrait of a family as much as it is about a street in a city during a volatile part of history. Belfast ends up being a crowd-pleasing hit.
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