The Plot: Belfast, summer 1969. Buddy (Jude Hill) is dealing with growing-up in a close-knit working class community in Belfast. His Protestant family lives right next door to Catholic families, but he struggles to understand what The Troubles are about. It comes spilling over into his street one day, causing concern for his Ma (Caitriona Balfe). As a builder, his Pa (Jamie Dornan) comes home every fortnight from England to take him to the pictures. There’s talk of the family moving abroad and yet his community, his home, is there for him now…
The Verdict: Here comes the first great film of 2022, in the appealing form of Belfast from local boy Kenneth Branagh. While he made a name for himself in England as a writer/director/actor bursting onto the film scene with his triumphant take on Henry V, he’s often talked warmly of growing up in his hometown. You can take the boy out of Belfast, but not the Belfast out of the boy it seems. With this film, there’s a sense that Branagh has been building up to this for his whole career. Perhaps waiting for the right moment when a new film about Northern Ireland can gaze into the past and be far more than just a film about The Troubles. While it does have its part to play, particularly in the moving closing moments, the film is more laser-focused in its determination to paint a vivid portrait of decent, salt-of-the-earth people living in a community rather than surviving through a turbulent time. All of this is achieved with an amiable air of nostalgia but without the rose-tinted glasses that often come with such stories.
Branagh’s script is a shoe-in for a Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination in the coming weeks. A semi-autobiographical take on his own childhood growing up in working-class Belfast, he deftly weaves a story of family life into the fabric of its time period. This is filtered through a child’s eye view with Buddy, a smart and curious kid with a rogue’s knowing sense of humour. He’s working his way up the class ranks to get closer to a girl he likes and is entranced by the magic of the movies. That’s definitely Branagh’s love for the movies there, possibly studying the under-appreciated British director Terence Davies and his portraits of working class family life like in The Long Day Closes. The characters are well-rounded, even in the supporting roles that speak volumes about how a city is made of people rather than buildings and roads. Memories good and bad linger, but they don’t define the characters. It’s a more optimistic script than one might have expected and is all the better for it too. It’s a film about Northern Ireland that is moving forward while looking back. Not an easy task but Branagh pulls it off with effortless charm and wisdom.
Key to that is the theme of tolerance. As Pa puts it to a confused Buddy at one point, it’s not about ‘them’ or ‘us’, it’s just religion. The targeted Catholics next door are neighbours, people who know Buddy and will look out for him. Never mind the fire and brimstone coming from the local priest, it’s about knowing what’s right and wrong without being pulled off the occasionally rocky road of life and diverted into a potential life of crime. The way that Branagh achieves this is commendable, portraying Ma as the moral compass in Buddy’s life rather than his Pa (who acknowledges as much in a key scene with Ma). There’s a sense here that Buddy’s support structure isn’t just his family, it’s also his community. Talk of leaving home to find another home is a recurring theme too and hints at what might have been had Branagh’s own family stayed. It’s an honest and cleverly-structured film about childhood that puts it lead character on the same level as the adults, thereby bridging that gap that would otherwise have tipped it into cloying sentimentality.
With brief but not overused splashes of colour on its overall black and white canvas, Belfast is a film that looks great on the big screen too. Belfast’s own Van Morrison provides the evocative music and the occasional film flourishes like the theme song from High Noon lend a cinematic touch to the wild west streets of Belfast. The actors are all uniformly excellent, but special mention must go to newcomer Jude Hill. He has that childish excitement but also growing maturity in his performance that tells the audience that come what may, Buddy is going to be just fine. Belfast is a wee cracker, a crowd pleaser that acknowledges the past, then carefully moves away from it and looks to the future of Northern Ireland with a renewed sense of hope. Amen to that.