Set in Ireland’s historic capital, “Belfast” is a semi-autobiographical film recounting the memories of Kenneth Branagh’s childhood and his working class family during The Troubles.
The Troubles was a conflict in Northern Ireland, initiated by the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association seeking to end discrimination against Catholics. This was protested by Protestant communities and authorities, which ultimately became violent. The film takes place during a high tension point of the conflict in 1969.
Eight-year-old Buddy and his tight knit family are forced to navigate through the troubled times and dangerous streets of Ireland’s capital. A stand-in for Branagh, Buddy is a strong lead and the main protagonist followed throughout the film. Played by Jude Hill, Buddy is a charming and lovable character faced with not only the challenges of boyhood, but that of the religious protests running rampant in his city. Coming from a Protestant family, he is struggling with different people telling him what to believe and how to act. Hill is a delight to watch and manages to express emotion in a compelling way that made me understand the issues from a child’s perspective.
Buddy’s Mother “Ma” (Caitríona Balfe) and his Father “Pa” (Jamie Dornan) have excellent chemistry together, despite their opposing views within the narrative about how to raise their family. Balfe is a stalwart defender of her family and her home, and she is a powerful maternal figure that executes her role with drive. Wanting to keep her family in Belfast despite the riots, she is in opposition to Dornan, a working man who is often away due to his job being outside the city. As the streets fill with barricades and riots become more violent, he wants nothing more than to take his family away from Ireland. The film offers perspectives from both sides of the scenario, which mirrors the decisions that many families made in the past.
Branagh’s decision as director to have the majority of the film in black and white is fitting for the story he wants to tell — a look back into his own memories. There are certain scenes within the film that are in color, however, typically when Buddy is watching movies with his family. This gives a sense of wonder and fantasy in his otherwise dreary day-to-day life, and it is fantastic that Branagh was deliberate in making the decision to highlight these scenes.
This willingness to show his emotions through the characters in his story is what made me fall in love with “Belfast.” I felt as if the director was bearing his heart and his memories in remembrance of the past. Revealing his perspective on the clash between Protestants and Catholics is sobering and provides a poignant reminder of Ireland’s history. Branagh cherishes the memories of his family and his home; he dedicates the film to those who stayed, those who left and those who were lost.