If there is one constant throughout history, it’s that people will always find a way to hate one another. During the late 1960s in Northern Ireland this was on ample display, as violent conflict erupted between Protestants and Catholics, mostly to do with whether or not to remain in the United Kingdom however as opposed to purely religious reasons. Known as “The Troubles”, a very British way to refer to such an event, it resulted in decades of violence and the deaths of more than 3,500 people. Actor and filmmaker Kenneth Branagh was a young boy in the city of Belfast at the time and has used those memories to create what he calls his “most personal film.”
Belfast opens with an aerial shot of the city today before the camera pans down past a wall and the picture switches to black and white as we are taken back to 1969. Children are playing in the street and citizens are going about their days when suddenly a violent mob appears and chaos ensues. Buddy (Jude Hill) and his brother Will (Lewis McAskie) are hurried home by their mother (Caitriona Balfe) where they wait out the attack under the kitchen table. Afterwards they discover that they were spared because only the Catholic homes were targeted, and the members of the community go about trying to clean up and protect each other from any further incursions.
As this plays out in the background, Buddy attends school, spends time with his grandparents (Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds), and tries to get closer to his crush. There are many moments of pure, nostalgic, childhood joy, despite the frightening events transpiring around him, such that it’s hard not to spend the movie wearing a big smile. But of course, it can be easier for a child to ignore the problems in their periphery, even if Buddy is acutely aware that his Ma and Pa (Jamie Dornan) are struggling. The couple are apart for weeks at a time as Pa works construction jobs in England, and his absence is taking a toll on Ma and their relationship. The increasing threat in their neighborhood also has them worried for their boys and contemplating moving the entire family across the Irish Sea, or further.
This is a truly beautiful movie, with a near perfect balance of drama, humor, and heart. Young Jude Hill is excellent as the Branagh-stand-in Buddy, ably holding his own against the incredibly talented cast. The script does an admirable job of mixing the seemingly at odds tones of wistful childhood memories and more serious-minded historical fiction. Haris Zambarloukos’ cinematography stuns throughout and Branagh smartly uses stylistic flourishes to amplify emotional beats, such as presenting movies and plays that the family watches in full color to convey the sense of awe they inspired. It’s a fairly simple story, but it’s a clear passion project for Branagh and the love he has for these characters is infectious. ★★★★★
Rated PG-13 for some violence and strong language.
★★★★★ = Excellent | ★★★★ = Very Good | ★★★ = Good | ★★ = Fair | ★ = Poor