Belfast skirts politics with a child’s-eye view of the Troubles Kenneth Branagh renders his youthful memories in black and white.
One Irish woman jokes to another during Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast that Irish people were born for leaving, because otherwise the world would have no pubs. “All the Irish need to survive,” she continues, “is a phone, a pint, and the sheet music to ‘Danny Boy’” — key ingredients for a long evening of sentimental longing for the ones you’ve left behind, or maybe the ones who left.
By those standards, Belfast is a very, very, very Irish movie. There are pints, phones, and an off-key rendition of “Danny Boy,” plus a lot of Van Morrison and dancing. But most of all, there’s Branagh’s misty-eyed and mostly successful nostalgia. It’s become a lazy critical cliché to declare that a film is a love letter to a city or to the past or to cinema, but in this case it’s inescapable, and Belfast succeeds in passing that love along to us.
That’s a testament to the depth of feeling with which Branagh infuses the film, shot almost entirely in black and white. Though set at the start of the Troubles, the 30-year period of often violent ethno-nationalist conflict often characterized as a religious confrontation in Northern Ireland, Belfast assiduously avoids taking sides. This is not a political movie. The focus remains trained on a family making a monumental decision and the community around them — just like Branagh’s family did when he was a boy.
Branagh’s stand-in is a 9-year-old boy named Buddy (Jude Hill), who lives with his Pa and Ma (Jamie Dornan and Caitríona Balfe) and older brother Will (Lewis McAskie) on a working-class street in Belfast. Pa works as a joiner in England, but comes home every few weekends; his parents (Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench) live nearby, as do many cousins and neighbors. From the shopkeepers to the housewives to the men down at the pub, they’ve all known each other all their lives. They’re all, in essence, family.
But it’s 1969, and trouble is on the horizon. One day, as Buddy and the other children are playing on the street, Protestant loyalists show up and begin violently targeting the homes and shops of Catholics with bricks and bombs. It’s terrifying, and it’s just the beginning. A makeshift barricade constructed at the base of the street serves as a checkpoint, and adults worry to one another about what is happening to their home.
Buddy and his family, like many on the street, are Protestants. But they have many Catholic friends, people they’ve known their whole lives, and for the most part, the neighbors resent the intrusion.
A line of soldiers in riot gear stand behind a man and a boy. There’s a looming figure in the foreground.