Belfast (2021)

A crisis through the eyes of a child offers a new perspective on life during the Northern Ireland conflict

Just in case the title didn’t give it away, this film is set in Belfast in 1969. Knowing only these two things, you go in thinking it’s going to be like any other film about Northern Ireland in the 60s. There’s going to be lots of violence and gore, and you’ll leave with a strong compulsion to go and watch a Disney film to make yourself feel better. At first, this was how I felt. But after the first 10 minutes, you realise the Troubles are merely the context in which they find themselves.

Heavily inspired by his real life, Belfast is undoubtedly writer and director Kenneth Branagh’s most personal film to date. The nine-year-old protagonist, Buddy (Jude Hill), is said to be a fictionalised version of Branagh. I only found this out after watching it. However, given the raw emotion prevalent throughout, it’s unsurprising that it was driven by a real experience.

Branagh is best known for his film adaptations of Shakespearean favourites such as Hamlet (1996) and As You Like It (2006). For those who are less familiar with these and want to put a face to the name, he also played Gilderoy Lockhart in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002).

Belfast depicts the life of Buddy. Navigating his way through childhood, just like anyone else, Buddy lives in a little town where everyone knows everyone. This place is close to their hearts, but it’s riddled with danger. They are Protestant and face the daily risk of being targeted by the Catholics.

His mum, ‘Ma’ (Caitríona Balfe) and dad, ‘Pa’ (Jamie Dornan) have an increasingly important decision to make. They can stay where they know but don’t feel safe or they can move the family somewhere out of harm’s way but completely unknown to them. Ma and their eldest son, Will (Lewis McAskie) are sceptical, but Buddy is terrified. Leaving the only place he knows, along with his grandparents, ‘Granny’ and ‘Pop’ (portrayed superbly by Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds) and the sweet little Catholic girl he’s taken a liking to; it would surely be the end of his world.

It’s a stark contrast – the innocent everyday happenings in a child’s life against the backdrop of a very real struggle. The film has been criticised for oversimplifying the conflict. But it’s not a historical film. And it isn’t trying to be. It’s a reminder that above all we are all human and more importantly, children are children. Regardless of the context in which they grow up, what matters to them the most is getting their homework in on time and sitting near the girl they fancy in class.

I mean it when I say I could have watched this family interact all day long. The copious amounts of heart-warming moments balance out the inevitable moments of adversity. It doesn’t sugarcoat what life was like and is not trying to portray a perfect family. That said, the rawness and authenticity are what make them so likeable. You’re rooting for them from the word go. My personal favourite moments were the interactions between Pop and Buddy. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but this kid would have been fine with just his grandparents. Their chats after school are so pure – they could trigger affection in even the coldest of creatures.

Most of the film is in black and white, which is not out of place given the time it’s set. For a film portraying the simplicity of life and the importance of community, it really doesn’t need colour. You get all the warmth you need from the chemistry between the characters and the enchanting Van Morrison soundtrack.

I think the fact they stuck with the same artist for most of the score is quite symbolic. It’s almost like the family has one record that they play over and over. Perhaps it’s the one thing they can trust not to change in times of crisis.

Worth the hype? It won’t be the best film I see this year, but for a Sunday afternoon, it was perfect. There was laughter, there were tears and Jamie Dornan isn’t exactly hard to look at.

Currently out in cinemas

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