Growing up in a street of mixed religions in 1969’s Belfast, a Protestant family tread a fine line amid rising sectarian tensions in the city. Youngest son Buddy (Jude Hill) observes the often fraction marriage of his put-upon Ma (Caitriona Balfe) with frequently absent father Pa(Jamie Dornan), the increasing frailty of his grandfather (Ciaran Hinds) and grand mother (Judi Dench) and the attempted recruitment of his older brother Will (Lewis McAskie) by local loyalist gangster Billy Mitchell (Colin Morgan), all while navigating his own life young and naïve life.
Emotional, gripping and managing a dichotomy of short length with vital details, Kenneth Branagh is back to his very best with the semi-autobiographical Belfast. After the unfortunate drek that was Artemis Fowl, Branagh has moved on with some of the same cast – most notably Dench, and Lara McDonnell as a cousin of Buddy’s who gets him into trouble routinely – and the same island, but produced something that will easily rank among his very best productions. This is clearly a film that Branagh has been thinking about for a while, and that sense of care, devotion and importance to the storyteller radiates out of every scene and line of dialogue.
The story, such as it is, is basic enough, but powerful in its way. It comes down to whether this family is going to weather the sectarian storm of the nascent Troubles – brought to life vividly by the menacing figure of criminal loyalism exemplified by Colin Morgan – or seek opportunities elsewhere, but it is the associated details that make Belfast. I talk of Buddy’s crush on a Catholic schoolmate that propels him to excel academically so he can sit next to her, anytime Hinds or Dench is on the screen as his loving, but inherently roguish grandparents (a scene where an ailing Hinds promises Buddy that he will never “be anywhere you can’t find me” will have you giving the proverbial “something in my eye” excuse) or nostalgic memories of youthful adventures fighting dragons, playing football, stealing from the local shop and taking in the likes of High Noon and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang on the local cinema.
It’s all undoubtedly a little nostalgic, and Branagh could be criticised for letting a set of rose-tinted glasses influence this monochrome production a bit too much – you’ll think Van Morrison was the only singer of note by the time you are done for sure, and will understand something of the Danny Blanchflower hero worship in the North – but the sense of menace behind Belfast life in 1969 is never very far away. The opening scene moves from idyllic to traumatising in the blink of an eye as loyalists initiate a program against Catholic denizens of the street, and for the next 90 minutes the philosophy of understanding, acceptance and neighbourly affection that Buddy’s family embody in their behaviour towards Catholics comes up right against the necessity for barricades and resident guards to protect their small strip of land. The Troubles is here, but life goes on. The message that blind sectarian hate goes hand-in-hand with devious acts of wanton criminality is clear, as is its rejection by any right-minded people: Catholics and Protestants are not all that different really, exemplified when Pa declares Catholicism a “religion of fear” right before we get a fire-and-brimstone speech from the local reverend (that ends, as it would do any creed, with an ecumenical-sounding plea for money).
Belfast is an acting tour de force, with nary a bad showing from anyone, even the minor players. Where I feel Branagh struggled hugely in getting a good performance from child actors in Artemis Fowl he succeeds admirably here, with Hill’s portrayal of this quasi-depiction of the director perfectly pitched in every innocent utterance and wild-eyed tantrum. Around him are a host of younger stars – Dornan and Balfe excel as Buddy’s perpetually stressed and on-the-edge parents who retain an obvious passion for each other, and Morgan’s menace is tangible in every scene – and older veterans – Hinds and Dench are the beating heart of the film and interact wonderfully – who really embody the material fully and make you believe that you are just a fly on the wall of this Belfast street.
And there is another aspect of Belfast that I feel really does deserve some additional attention, and that is its running time. Too often these days big tentpole films and more cerebral arthouse movies feel the need to present themselves with exorbitant running times that fly past the two-hour mark, and in so doing merely betray an ill-advised grab at being dubbed “epic”, a lack of editing and cutting skill or a distrust that an audience will be capable of absorbing the intended message in a more palatable length. Branagh blows this up with Belfast, which in little more than 90 minutes manages to convey more emotion, more catharsis and more expert story-telling than I have seen in similar visual tomes that prefer keeping you in your seat for twice the time. Less is more has rarely been more apt, and my annual “Bang For Your Buck” award has a very early frontrunner.
Visually, Branagh chooses to use black-and-white, save for those moments when he is in a cinema or a theatre (where a line is drawn between Pa’s singular refusal to aid the loyalist cause with “cash or commitment” and Gary Cooper’s lone stand in High Noon), or in brief openings and codas that give a look at present day Belfast. The effect obviously lends age to the story being told, and of course also imbues in it that sense of youth nostalgia: many shots are from a low level looking up, especially as it comes to Pa. Some may say the effect goes too far, and makes Belfast seem more like an idealistic dream of a childhood lost, but I wouldn’t go that far: while I wouldn’t say it really adds an enormous amount to the experience, I think it does still ground Belfast in 1969, and in the lack of colour emphasises the penury of the moment, both financially in the case of the struggling family, and in the moral decay that permits instances of loyalist violence depicted to go largely without significant challenge from the authorities. Other than that I was struck by the intimacy of Belfast’s cinematography, with Branagh, aided by Haris Zambarloukos, fixing his camera in place for interior scenes that really do what you to feel as if you are sitting there in the kitchen with Ma, Pa, Granny and Pop.
2022 has been a decent year for film so far it has to be said, and it now has an early lead for film of the year. That’s praise enough for Belfast really. an emotionally engaging affair that boils over with warm characters, affection for the city being portrayed, positive messages amid a lot of darkness and an exploration of the importance of a very Irish wit and good humour in the face of adversity. It may be a very particular type of nostalgia-bait in its own way, but when nostalgia-bait is as well-acted, well-written and as well-shot as this, it is difficult to complain. Kenneth Branagh has a new masterpiece. Highly recommended.
(All images are copyright of Universal Pictures).