‘Belfast’ review: a moving tribute to childhood and lost innocence

Kenneth Branagh's semi-autobiographical drama documents his early years living amid The Troubles

It’s August 1969 when young Buddy’s working-class, Protestant neighbourhood in Belfast first goes up in flames. A car explodes and windows are smashed. Rioters have come to intimidate the Catholics who live in the area and the consequences are barricades and a shocked little boy’s lost innocence.

After the riot, Buddy’s Pa (Jamie Dornan) returns from his work in England to find local thug Billy Clanton (Colin Morgan) pressuring him to join the cause. It’s not explicitly explained but it’s heavily implied that violence towards Catholic property and people would be expected. Understandably, doubts about the suitability of bringing up a family in a dangerous city cause tension between Buddy’s Pa and Ma (Caitríona Balfe) with Pa keen on leaving Northern Ireland for a life in Australia or Canada. Granny (Judi Dench) and grandad Pop (Ciarán Hinds) are calming voices of reason, as grandparents so often can be in real-life family strife.

Buddy (newcomer Jude Hill, sweetly playing a surrogate of writer-director Kenneth Branagh), gets on with things as best a boy can. His chief pursuits are a blossoming interest in Catholic girl Catherine (Olive Tennant), running around causing mischief and the mighty Tottenham Hotspur, captained by Northern Ireland’s Danny Blanchflower (rival fans may laugh but back in the 1960s Tottenham were worthy of the “mighty” adjective). Yet even a boy’s football team can’t blind him to the problems at home and in his neighbourhood. Though lacking in malice, Buddy is involved in the looting of a supermarket and is sent back by his mother to replace the washing powder he pilfered. Between Clanton’s malign local influence and the small bother Buddy gets in, the family’s days in Belfast appear numbered.

The Troubles in Northern Ireland have been captured many times on film, most recently in tense 2014 army thriller ’71. But it’s best to think of Belfast as a great, crowd-pleasing coming-of-ager set in the city, rather than a serious, nuanced depiction of the conflict. Branagh’s tale leans heavily on the autobiographical and it’s about feelings rather than facts. Buddy’s delight on cinema trips, the heartbreak of leaving people and places you love behind and the lad’s first pangs of romance are what’s focused on here.

In black-and-white throughout, Belfast will remind many viewers of the similarly nostalgic Roma. While Belfast lacks the remarkable quality of Alfonso Cuarón’s 2018 Oscar-winner, it is a classy and moving effort, with several excellent performances, particularly from Hinds and Dench. Music comes from famous Northern Irish curmudgeon Van Morrison and, most delightfully, Love Affair. The London soul-poppers gift their 1967 version of ‘Everlasting Love’ to an utterly joyous dance scene towards the film’s conclusion. It rounds off Belfast with a perfect sense of hopeful relief.

Details

  • Director: Kenneth Branagh
  • Starring: Jude Hill, Judi Dench, Jamie Dornan
  • Release date: January 21 (in cinemas)
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