The winner of the People’s Choice Award at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, Kenneth Branagh’s latest film Belfast stars Caitríona Balfe, Judi Dench, Jamie Dornan, Ciarán Hinds and Colin Morgan. Told from the perspective of young Buddy (newcomer Jude Hill), the film follows the life of a working-class family in Belfast in the late 1960s.
When the film seeps from a modern technicolour portrait of the city to its timely monochrome visuals of the 1960s, it signifies a simpler and somewhat idyllic time. On this seemingly nondescript street, there is a relaxed and comfortable familiarity where all the kids are playing in the street and everybody knows everybody else, acknowledging each other with politeness. However, the scene soon shifts with Buddy as a terrified bystander and we quickly realise that this is a Protestant street during the Troubles, which makes it a hive for unease and restlessness.
Belfast is mostly told via Buddy’s perspective as he tries to retain what is left of his childhood. Amid school, trips to the cinema, and televised Westerns, he is a compelling protagonist (thanks to Hill’s brilliant performance), as his questions about life and a crush involving classmate Catherine (Olive Tennant) plague his mind as the world seems to crumble around him. Meanwhile, he secretly witnesses the pressure of financial issues on his parents (Balfe and Dornan) and his father’s constant absenteeism due to his job in England. Despite his panicked expressions, Buddy is seemingly aware of what is going on but the extent of his knowledge is a mystery due to his naivety and innocence. Meanwhile, the older characters fill in the blanks with tender interactions. Buddy’s parents openly support and love each other while his grandparents (Dench and Hinds) deliver warmth and humour in times of strife. Through Buddy’s eyes, audiences wouldn’t think that this would be a battleground for civil conflict but Branagh takes his time to subtly feed tension throughout the narrative.
The tension mainly stems from fear-filled conversations between Buddy’s parents, not to mention the presence of local ‘enforcer’ Billy Clanton (Morgan). Balfe’s Ma practically raises Buddy and his older brother Will (Lewis McAskie) with a headstrong attitude while Dornan’s Pa struggles with debts and the inability to both provide and protect his family in Belfast. With the riots increasing in intensity and Clanton targeting Pa via Buddy and Will, the idea of potentially leaving the city feeds the restlessness between them. Both Dornan and Balfe bring grounded performances, with the latter delivering a powerfully emotional resonance that coveys Ma’s conflict between survival and loyalty to the place she calls home.
Inspired by his own childhood, Branagh paints this deeply personal film with an idealistic brush to evoke a deep sense of joy and hope during a difficult era. The visuals are simply gorgeous and the dialogue is filled with pearls of wisdom and occasionally cheeky, laugh-out-loud moments. Combined with Van Morrison’s beautiful soundtrack and its strong performances, Belfast is a stunning homage to the eponymous city encased in a bubble of nostalgia.
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Stars: Caitríona Balfe, Judi Dench, Jamie Dornan, Ciarán Hinds, Colin Morgan, Jude Hill
Runtime: 97 minutes