Release Date – 21st January 2022, Cert – 12, Run-time – 1 hour 38 minutes, Director – Kenneth Branagh
Nine-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill) finds the future of his family in their Belfast home thrown into uncertainty when the Troubles break into his neighbourhood.
As the effects of the Troubles create dividing tensions within the working class neighbourhood of nine-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill) the street where kids once freely played and parents casually chattered has become littered with rubbish, rubble and conversations in which tension hangs in every word like a loosely wrapped threat. The setting appears to become darker, greyer in terms of the black and white nature in which writer-director Kenneth Branagh captures this late 60s throwback of sorts. Yet, amongst the fear that the Troubles cause and the rifts that emerge within the neighbourhood the film largely follows young Buddy as he tries to go about his daily life. There’s a warmth of innocence – brought about by a stunning performance from Hill in the leading role – that washes over each scene as he tries to play and the Troubles, to him at times, almost feel like a background element to the course that he takes.
The effects are certainly shown on his already struggling parents (played by Jamie Dornan and Caitriona Balfe), who while struggling for money are having circulating conversations about moving to the seeming safety of England – where Dornan frequently travels to for work. The family unit feels natural and brings you in to their mixture, as if placed at the same table (or living room) during many scenes. None more so than when Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds are on screen as Buddy’s Granny and Pop. Both performances bring about a fine sense of warmth and humour and almost act as the true escape from everything going on in the outside world, while still being the greatest givers of advice and thought to Buddy as his biggest worries are still how he can get to talk to a girl he likes at school. Through each strand and figure the heart of Branagh’s film is increased and when blended with an excellent soundtrack there’s a true piece of work about a child simply growing up and living his life, while never dampening the extent of the various dramas at play.
Everything comes across with a fine sense of care and ease. Branagh looks back with a thoughtful nature that feels far from self-indulgent. There may be a personal story here, yet he opens the world out for everyone, by showing events through Buddy’s eyes; particularly the loud chaos and confusion of an impactful riot scene which he gets caught up in. Branagh puts himself into the craft and look of Belfast. The way in which it’s shot and edited, both finely constructed and helping to tell the story and engage the viewer further, emphasise the details and the way in which he wants you to see the film. Making sure you notice the struggles which Dornan and Balfe (and indeed the rest of the tightly-packed estate – intensifying the rising tensions later on) are facing and fighting through, while still focusing on the personal story of a young boy finding his place in the world, and potentially having to move away from it; after having spent his whole life there and largely loving it. You just have to see simple scenes such as walks home from school or family outings to go and see Chitty Chitty Bang Bang for proof of this.
What we see over the just over 90 minute course of the film is something of a time capsule. An early shift from the colour of modern day Belfast to the initially light black and white of the late 1960s puts this feeling into place. There’s a story being told and unfolded that the characters live through, and its easy to get caught up in and form a connection with them thanks to the naturality that almost every moment comes with. This isn’t as much a coming-of-age film for the young protagonist, but one where we see him acting out his life against the darkness of where he lives. This is as much a family drama, with its fair share of heart and laughs, as much as it is something about the Troubles. All finely balanced and depicted by Branagh who opens up his story book and guides his camera through the pages, bringing the viewer along for the ride as they observe a childhood acted out against the backdrop of the Troubles. There are fine performances to bring the piece to life – especially a pitch perfect Jude Hill in the central role – and capture the natural feel of each scene. It’s hard not to fall for, and in to, Belfast. A thoughtfully and caringly told story of family and childhood.
By placing an excellent Jude Hill at the centre of his piece Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast is a tightly-edited piece on childhood and growing up, set against the finely tuned and balanced tensions of the Troubles the gradual changes in the world never hinder the innocence and familial warmth that’s on display from the supporting cast.