In Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast, it is August 1969, and Buddy (Jude Hill in his feature film debut) is a nine-year old boy living in the titular city. In an ordinary street of terraced housing, he spends his days playing football, hanging out with his older brother Will (Lewis McAskie), spending time with his grandparents (Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench), and trying to get further up his class at school so that, with the seating organised in merit order, he can sit next to his crush for the week. He is raised by his mother (Caitríona Balfe), whilst his father (Jamie Dornan) is working in England and returns home every two weeks.
When a group of protestants riot on the street, attacking homes belonging to Catholics in the area (Buddy’s family are practising protestants), a barricade is set up to try to prevent a repeat, and Buddy’s father returns home to check up on his family’s wellbeing (his parents and grandparents are never named, just referred to as Ma, Pa, Granny and Pop). With Pa back in town, the perpetrators of the riot continue to agitate for Pa and Will to get involved in the cause, implying that either money or action will be required in order to prevent violent consequences. At the same time, the family are working to pay off debt accumulated as the result of historic unpaid taxes.
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With father dreaming of emigrating to Canada or Australia in search of a safer, more promising future, and mother distressed at the thought of leaving her hometown, and fearing racism in England – which also becomes an option as the story develops – Buddy’s future lies in the hands of others, as we see this good-natured boy just trying to live an ordinary existence, in his loving family, against the backdrop of temptations that could lead his life in the wrong direction. With the family close knit, and Pops in worsening health, we see the uncertainty weigh heavily on Buddy, whilst it is far from certain his parents can remain together in trying circumstances. We see the family through to the following Easter, as they attempt to make the most difficult of decisions as to where next to go in life.
With Kenneth Branagh having also written the screenplay for Belfast, a quick glance at his own personal history reveals this to be perhaps his most personal work, a piece afforded to him as the result of his success with more commercial ventures. Born in 1960, he would have been Buddy’s age at the time of the film’s setting. Originally from Belfast, his family left the area when he was nine years old, in order to move to Reading, in England.
This experience is in every frame of the film. Starting with a few establishing shots of the present-day city, the film switches to black and white as if reaching back into his own memories – whether they are similarly monochrome, we don’t know, but it is a nice choice. Colour only invades in a few choice places, and usually to show a world that would be very exotic to Buddy: Chitty, Chitty Bang Bang at the cinema, and a visit to see A Christmas Carol at the theatre.
Although there are scenes in which the boy doesn’t appear, and a few snatches of dialogue he would not be able to hear, even where he is in the room, or nearby, most scenes are shot from Buddy’s perspective, or at least his height and therefore his vantage point. Only where he is not being addressed or speaking does the camera go to an adult actor’s height or above. This is his story, and as such, the details of the Troubles are only addressed through snippets we hear on a television playing in the background or bits of overheard conversation. Buddy would not understand any more than he can glean from his family, so we, the audience, get only this.
The film grounds itself in the era more realistically than most period pieces. In many cases a film set in the 60s will feature only items from the year in question. Life isn’t like that for most, with items of furniture accumulated over a number of years and the television showing films and shows from various eras. So, we see the home as Branagh would likely remember it, along with then-modern TV such as Star Trek, but older films such as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and High Noon. A living, breathing world has been created, and the film is careful not to portray Buddy’s existence as grim. He has the usual preoccupations of a boy if his age: first love, watching his grandparents age and weaken, doing well in school, playing in the street.
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That is probably Belfast‘s second strongest facet: its positivity. Against a backdrop of violent sectarianism, this is a family full of love, despite the challenges, and they keep their children’s existences as normal as possible – the very factor prompting them to consider leaving. Its strongest card is its performances. The cast – Dench aside – were largely born and raised in the city, and their connections to the material make everything feel very real. There is good humour, but only in the way that life itself is funny. Jude Hill is a terrific young performer who does manage to elicit a couple of real laughs with his naive reactions to events.
Avoiding melodrama on the one-hand, but the risk of trivialising the Troubles on the other, Belfast may be the best work of Branagh’s directorial career, as it is created with love, insight and lived experience. A terrific piece of filmmaking.
Belfast is out now at cinemas.