Caitriona Balfe and Jamie Dornan in Belfast (2021)
“No matter how far you go, you never forget where you came from.”
The 1969 riots in Northern Ireland saw an outbreak of the Troubles, a period of political and sectarian violence between Catholics and Protestants. Belfast was the scene of much conflict. During a week in August, the destruction of homes and businesses in the capital city led thousands of families to evacuate. In fear of what would become of their communities, in fear of losing their lives. What people left behind was not just violence, but also a sense of home. A place in which many laughs were shared and sweet memories were made. The people of Belfast left the only place they know. The experience of this conflict is told from a child’s perspective in the film Belfast, written and directed by Kenneth Branagh. By focusing the narrative on young Buddy (Jude Hill), Branagh draws from his own childhood in a loving way, full of a desire to understand what his parents went through. Belfast gives an ear to all the conversations and events surrounding Buddy that lead one family to make a huge sacrifice for a better life. Branagh’s bittersweet ode to family and belonging is heartwarming to watch. It's one of the most enjoyable films of the year that leaves you wanting more time with the characters.
Buddy (Jude Hill) lives with his working-class family - Ma (Caitriona Balfe), Pa (Jamie Dornan), brother Will (Lewis McAskie), Granny (Judi Dench), and Pop (Ciarán Hinds). Buddy lives in a place where everyone knows his name. That the brothers are given personalized names, while the adults have names the children would call them, is one of many details putting the viewer as a fly on the wall inside a family’s home from a child’s point of view. Branagh gives a lens to what makes their house a home, from the recurring moments Buddy watches Westerns on TV, to the intimate family conversations shared…the good, the bad, and the ugly. As Pa works in England, returning to visit every 2 weeks, Ma holds down the home front with support from Granny and Pop. The family do their best to keep an eye on the children, and also want to give them a normal childhood where they can run and play in the neighborhood without fear. But when violence breaks out at their front door, the reality of the Troubles is near inescapable.
Based on true events from Branagh’s childhood, the film is his most personal yet as he recreates vivid memories from an inward place of vulnerability. Branagh and the entire cast put their heart into crafting an intimate experience that is every bit hopeful in the face of conflict. The story has layered details that seem tiny and fleeting, but this is where life happens. From day-to-day conversations with Granny and Pop, to Buddy’s school crush, and magical wide-eyed nights out to the theatre. This is where comfortability and acceptance grow, making it all the more tough for Buddy’s family to decide leaving a place where everyone knows who they are. Pa’s urgency to move is met with Ma’s resistance to uproot the entire family and sacrifice the home they have built.
Jude Hill in Belfast (2021)
Amidst the religious and political tensions, this is a story about a family surviving. Part of that is how they find a source of joy in each day. The film has some cheerful sequences, from movie outings to a musical number of ‘Everlasting Love’ performed by Jamie Dornan. Belfast has a shorter runtime than expected, and it would have been great to see Branagh lean more into the musical aspects because ‘Everlasting Love’ is such a burst of warmth. It’s a reminder of unconditional love and how often the relationships between family members can be taken for granted. The music in this film is great all around, featuring songs from Belfast-born Van Morrison which adds to the atmosphere of childhood. The beautiful black and white cinematography by Haris Zambarloukos makes the film look like a nostalgic memory, and transitions to a few pops of colour in fitting moments.
The film’s depiction of a tumultuous time stretches beyond a single incident. Instead of writing a story that builds up to one climax, Belfast is about the range of memories made in all the moments between. Branagh does a great job building on what makes Belfast home to Buddy. Nine-year-old Jude Hill carries the film so well, with innocence and humor, and a moving outlook on wanting to keep his family together. The supporting cast are gems to watch, with standouts in the performances by Caitriona Balfe and Ciarán Hinds. Both take what could have been generic roles and bring so much detail to them, with a lived-in quality that makes them instantly feel like family. No matter what happens, no matter the hardships they go through, they will always be a family. As the character of Pop advises to Buddy, as long as he knows who he is, he will never forget where he comes from. Belfast is a love letter to the place where your heart lives, one that is unforgettable and true. Branagh’s film is for the ones who stayed, the ones who left, and the ones whose lives were lost.
Belfast is now playing in theaters across Canada.