Cast: Caitríona Balfe, Judi Dench, Jamie Dornan, Ciarán Hinds, Colin Morgan. Directed by Kenneth Branagh.
Sir Kenneth “Chuckles” Branagh hasn’t written a screenplay in fifteen years, his last was an adaptation of The Magic Flute, since then his directorial work has been of other people’s screenplays usually for big studio releases. Having gone from working in the shadow of Laurence Olivier, to helming some of the biggest films for Disney, it appears as if there’s very little that Sir Ken can’t do. It would appear he can even turn his hand to coming-of-age stories about a moment in time.
Based somewhat on Branagh’s life, Belfast follows Buddy, a Northern Irish kid who lives with his brother, mother and occasionally their father when he returns from working in England. Buddy’s life is in flux when The Troubles begin to encroach on the town.
It takes time for people to truly assess moments in history, and for many The Troubles was as significant to their lives as the Cold War, perhaps more so. The Troubles have left a mark on British history like nothing else. Even today references to it are littered in works like Gangs of London – references to the “No Dogs, No Blacks, No Irish” – and ham-fisted attempts at commentary like one scene in Wonder Woman 1984.
Perhaps now that twenty some odd years have passed people are more able to talk about them, and to discuss their significance. For anyone who is a fan of Derry Girls it’s clear that The Troubles exists as a background to a moment in young women’s lives as opposed to dealing with the murky and divisive politics head-on.
Branagh writes and directs this based loosely on his own life, and as such it tells of a child’s experience seeing the world shift in front of them. Newcomer Jude Hill delivers a performance of weight and levity in equal measure. For a first-time actor, Hill has some of the finest comic timing of any film this year and never becomes too twee or coy. He perfectly captures that moment in a young man’s life when things appear to change and someone becomes the person they will remain.
It helps that Branagh has assembled fine support around him. Jamie Dornan shows a lightness of touch as Buddy’s kindly father who works away a lot, at times showing that barely repressed rage that made him so popular in The Fall, but most of the time is a man who just loves his family and wants what’s best for them. Similarly, regular Branagh collaborator Judi Dench appears to reprise her role from Philomena as Buddy’s grandmother. Both she and Ciaran Hinds bring warmth and a fair amount of emotion to the grandparent roles, figures of nurturing authority who provide a counterpoint to the sometimes strained relationship of Buddy’s parents.
Ultimately the film feels like a showcase for Caitriona Balfe as Buddy’s mother. In several scenes, she holds things together entirely with just her eyes as she attempts to raise two young boys in a time when civil unrest could erupt at any moment. Like so many films of this nature where a director is talking directly about their upbringing the mother is the key figure in the story and here Balfe carves out a woman who is determined to maintain who morals and dignity regardless of what the political landscape may be.
Branagh does falter at times, the budding romance between Buddy and a schoolmate feels a little too contrived, and suffers from feeling derivative of other films. That coupled with Colin Morgan’s antagonistic role as an IRA member trying to bring in Buddy’s father feel like they’re not fully cooked. The implication of a history between Morgan and Dornan could offer a glimpse into the younger years, but the film’s decision to make it about how a child sees the situation means we don’t always get a lot of information about these things.
Even so, Branagh knows how to make a film – there’s less of his penchant for Dutch Angles in the film, and his choice to shoot the film in Black and White becomes clear whenever film or theatre appear. Suddenly the screen or stage is bathed in colour, the message that in dark times the arts bring light and colour to a drab world is a little on the nose, but the sight of people ducking and covering as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang plays out on screen is infectious.
Branagh chooses to use only songs by Van Morrison also, perhaps as an ode to his upbringing listening to them but it gives the film a sense of a story being told to you by a relative as the radio plays. It also helps that Branagh makes sure for all the darkness there is levity, the moments of comedy in life that make it worthwhile.
That said the political under-current remains the ever-present threat. Our first introduction to the IRA riots comes onto a quiet street and into the life of Buddy like a scene from a disaster film. Branagh brings his blockbusting chops to a sequence that is both terrifying in its content and epic in its filmmaking. Despite only happening on one street Branch puts us at the boy’s level so we experience the abject terror of civil unrest coming out of nowhere.
Branagh clearly loves the film, and there’s such an air of happiness to him making the film (look out for a cheeky Thor comic) that it’s hard not to fall in love with the film also. In mixing Ken Loach with Mike Leigh, Sir Kenneth delivers one of the year’s finest films and a reminder that when all the bombast is taken out, Branagh knows how to tell a story.