With Belfast, Kenneth Branagh Affectionately Recalls a Childhood in a City Torn by Strife

Kenneth Branagh, an all-caps director, prefers the dramatic grand gesture, even if a subtler flourish might do. We both had a beautiful full-length film by the same man. Hamlet(1996) and an overstuffed Murder aboard the Orient Express2017. His look-at-me prowess can drive you nuts or be the very thing you cherish about him, and it’s OK to feel a jumble of both. Branagh’s semiautobiographical Belfast which takes place in that city in 1969, at the onset of the Troubles, may be the ultimate test of finding that balance: It’s both intimate and almost comically egotistical—yet Branagh has clearly poured so much love into it that you can’t be too hard on him. It’s hard to resist the movie’s affectionate energy.
[time-brightcove not-tgx=”true”]

It is best to start early Belfast—shot mostly in nostalgically velvety black-and-white—we see adorably sweater-clad 9-year-old Buddy (played by newcomer Jude Hill) playing boisterously with other kids on his idyllic little street. An angry mob of children storms the street, setting fires and smashing windows for no apparent reason to kids. The small, tidy house where Buddy lives with his mother (Catriona Balfe) and older brother (Lewis McAskie)—his father (Jamie Dornan) is working in England to support the family, returning home for periodic visits—remains unscathed. It is, we’re told, “only the Catholic houses” that are the targets of the rioters’ boiling rage, and Buddy’s family is Protestant. Yet, Buddy’s parents are not happy with the violence. Do they want to stay?

If you’re looking for cogent ideological analysis of fairly recent Irish history, you’re not going to find it in Belfast. This is a child’s-eye view of serious adult problems, in the vein of We are filled with hope and glory John Boorman’s exuberant 1987 film memoir of being a kid in London during the Blitz. To that end, Branagh gives us many, many shots of Hill’s Buddy looking cherubically darling, his two front teeth drastically failing to reach accord about which direction they should be heading. It’s all a bit much.

BELFAST (2021)
Rob Youngson / Focus Features—© 2021 Focus Features, LLC.The central family in ‘Belfast’ takes in a movie as violence erupts in the city around them

Continue reading: The Complex History Behind Belfast—and Its Echoes in Present-Day Northern Ireland

Even so, as a portrait of one future auteur’s late-1960s childhood, Belfastit is vivid, heartfelt and moving: One scene shows the entire family trekking out to the 1968 crowd pleaser Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,Its haunting, but timeless theme song is enough to make you fall in love with it. Balfe and Dornan are superb as young parents trying to figure out what’s best for their family amid escalating political violence. And as Buddy’s adored grandfather, Ciarán Hinds might have been a salt-of-the-Earth cliché—yet his lovelorn-hound eyes keep the movie grounded. Love him, hate him, or love-hate him, Kenneth Branagh understands how one person’s eyes can unlock the power of memory. He also has never forgotten about the Chitty Chitty Bang Bang song—the ultimate proof, no matter how high he climbs, that he is human, after all.


Related Articles

Back to top button