It’s impossible not to be charmed by Kenneth Branagh’s personal, warm-hearted movie about the city of his childhood, even if it’s ultimately a tad too slight to really hit hard emotionally.
Set in the late 1960s and shot in the evocative, nostalgic black-and-white, Belfast depicts tumultuous times in Northern Ireland, when close-knit communities were torn apart by the conflict between Catholics and Protestants, but it does so through the innocent, wide-eyed perspective of a nine-year-old boy named Buddy (Jude Hill).
The sweet, winsome boy lives in Belfast, in a neighbourhood where everyone knows everyone. His father (Jamie Dornan, thankfully a world away from his dead-eyed Christian in Fifty Shades of Grey) is a handsome, easy-going charmer who spends most of the week over in England working as a carpenter. His long-suffering wife (Caitríona Balfe) is busy raising Buddy and his older brother (who figures in the story and Buddy’s life so little I was left wondering why he was there at all). Buddy’s grandparents, played by scene-stealing Judy Dench and Ciarán Hinds, live with them under the same roof.
When violence explodes in their community, and local tough guys begin to harass Buddy’s father, he starts showing his wife and children brochures about assisted emigration to Sydney and Vancouver. Or maybe a simple hop, skip and jump across the water to England will do. But can the family bear to uproot themselves and leave their beloved home town where they’ve lived all their lives?
While his parents agonise over big decisions, and Buddy struggles to understand the growing danger around them, there’s still room for some normality in his life, including a budding crush on the smartest girl in his class, and escapism at the cinema. The movie screen, and later on the theatrical performance of A Christmas Carol that Buddy attends with his grandmother, are shot in full colour, as if Branagh’s autobiographical movie was giving a not-so-subtle hint where Buddy’s future career may lie. There’s even a sly brief reference to Marvel’s Thor – I see what you did there Sir Kenneth!
Belfast has a wonderful lived-in sense about it that makes you feel as if you’re watching someone’s real memories; it’s full of small details so specific that they surely must have been drawn from a personal experience. I’m not sure however if Branagh really succeeds in getting inside a mind of a child, though it’s hard to pin down why. Maybe it takes a special directorial talent to draw a truly special performance from a first-time child actor; maybe it’s that the film’s choice of artier shots don’t really mesh with a perspective of a small boy.
The top-tier adult cast, however, all shine bright and all give stellar, authentic performances. Judy Dench and Ciarán Hinds in particular bring tremendous warmth, humour and heart as an old couple who have shared a lifetime together; their characters have such a natural chemistry teasing each lovingly and mercilessly that I wished they could share screen more often.
Belfast basically plays out as a collection of short, random vignettes, and in the first half especially it felt as if Branagh’s film was in search of a solid storyline that could hold it all together. In the end, the movie left me wishing for a bit more weight and emotional punch to the story that never quite materialised, but I was still won over by its heartfelt sincerity, many wonderful moments, and the Van Morrison-heavy soundtrack.
P.S. I’ve been to Belfast a few years ago, so I really enjoyed revisiting the memories during the opening montage panning over the modern-day city and its landmarks like the Titanic museum.