Way back in 1989, Kenneth Branagh was a brash Irish thespian staging rousing and passionate productions of Shakespeare in ways that brought young eyes back to the Bard, while also making a name for himself. At the time, he also published his autobiography, Beginning. Definitely a ballsy move to write and release at age 29, yet it’s a crackin’ read with a first chapter that now reads as a primer for Branagh’s latest, Belfast.
In his early acting years, Branagh judiciously explored his Northern Ireland roots in theater. In the decades since, he hasn’t dipped back into his heritage on the stage or screen much since those plays or his autobiography. With Belfast, it feels like Branagh spent those interim years ruminating heavily on his past in the ways only time and distance can afford, and he’s poured those rich sense memories into all 97 minutes of this deeply personal film.
Collecting some of his longtime acting collaborators like Judi Dench and Gerard Horan, and some of the best Irish actors working today including Ciarán Hinds, Caitríona Balfe and Jamie Dornan, Branagh forms them into semi-autobiographical versions of his family, friends and neighbors back in the day. They represent three generations of Belfasters, the backbone of his intimate snapshot of late ‘60s Northern Ireland, with Hinds and Dench as Pop and Granny, and Balfe and Dornan as Ma and Pa to young Buddy (newcomer Jude Hill).
Initially introducing audiences to a color-drenched montage of aerial views of Belfast today, Branagh’s camera then slips over a fence and back in time to a black-and-white past seen mostly from Buddy’s point of view. He exists in a seemingly carefree childhood, comforted by his tight knit community. But his peaceful play is quickly shattered by the Troubles invading his mixed religion, middle class street. Housing both Catholics and Protestants, the street becomes a literal war zone that erupts in the middle of the day as Protestants try to physically oust the Catholics from their homes.
Branagh uses Buddy’s inherent confusion about the causes of the violence as an entry point for the audience. He gives us a child’s eye view of the palpable fear and the darkly comedic absurdity of two dogmatic religions battling for societal dominance and the souls of its devout worshippers. A thoughtful young soul, Buddy whizzes about the streets visiting his grandparents, attending school, or even testing the waters of his own rebellious proclivities with older firebrand Moira (Lara McDonnell). Branagh, through Buddy, gives us a street level view of living in the Belfast of the time. And he’s a winning tour guide, serving up the highs and lows of kid life with sincerity, charm and heart.
Buddy also gently inserts himself as a voyeur into the adult matters of the story as he lingers on the family stairs or listens through windows to their small dramas unfolding around him. Outside of the social unrest, Buddy’s parents are existing as a long-distance family because Buddy’s father has steady work in London. Offered a more permanent position, the couple wrestle with leaving their tight-knit community—which Buddy’s Ma can’t imagine—for a safer, stable life abroad. There’s also the quiet wisdom and countenance of Buddy’s grandparents, who are failing in health and heart as the violent changes in their city encroach upon them all.
By following the mercurial, butterfly existence of a small child, Branagh is able to keep an innocence to this slice of life story as the bigger issues behind the Troubles are kept at bay. They simmer and threaten at the fringes of Buddy’s existence, an encroaching threat that is made understandable for audiences not seeped in the complexities inherent in Irish politics and religion. And by keeping the camera and the story kid-oriented, everything is more emotionally tangible, from the violent skirmishes that flare to the emotional meltdown of a child facing the possibility of leaving the only place they’ve ever known. Hill carries those moments on his little shoulders with weight and truth. And he’s supported by achingly intimate performances from Dench, Hinds, Balfe and Dornan. They portray couples who know and show love, disappointment, laughter, anger and frustration which adds a gravitas to the world hovering around Buddy. And it’s terribly refreshing not to see the film devolve into the oft-seen Irish clichés of alcoholism or bitterness within marriages. They have flaws, but try to sing and dance and sacrifice for one another with quiet nobility.
The ambiance of Belfast is also to be commended, with DP Haris Zambarloukos effectively using black and white to alternately capture the warmth of the era and the stark brutality of the times. The sound design draws you into the aural landscape of the neighborhood, from the layered snippets of conversations that Buddy overhears, to the intensity of the violent uprisings, or even just the musicality of neighborhood radios and TVs providing the cultural context to Buddy’s young life. Musically, Van Morrison provides a needledrop-filled soundtrack that serves as the connective score. He’s a native Belfaster, which makes him city-appropriate, but perhaps more bombastic in voice and temperament than the film needs. There were times when a more tempered score, that would’ve allowed for more emotional nuance, was missed from the mix.
Experiencing Branagh come full circle with Belfast is like getting an invitation to observe an artist come to terms with his roots. There’s the expected nostalgia, but also the graceful observation of the wisdom and clarity acquired with the power of hindsight. Buddy’s experiences feel infinitely relatable, but also inexorably tied to his Irishness, making him the rare conduit that connects us to ourselves while introducing us to a time and place only those born to it will truly know.
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Writer: Kenneth Branagh
Starring: Caitriona Balfe, Judi Dench, Jamie Dornan, Ciaran Hinds, Jude Hill
Release Date: November 12, 2021
Tara Bennett is a Los Angeles-based writer covering film, television and pop culture for publications such as SFX Magazine, Total Film, SYFY Wire and more. She’s also written books on Sons of Anarchy, Outlander, Fringe and The Story of Marvel Studios in 2021. You can follow her on Twitter @TaraDBennett.