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Jamie Dornan as Pa and Jude Hill as Buddy in Belfast.
Jamie Dornan as Pa and Jude Hill as Buddy in Belfast.
Photo: Rob Youngson/Focus Features




Now showing in cinemas


5/5 Stars


It is Belfast, 1969, and after years of peaceful co-existence between Catholics and Protestants in a working-class neighbourhood in the city, the Troubles finally hit this small, tight-knit community as an extremist faction of Protestants call for the expulsion of all Catholics from the area. Caught in the madness is young Buddy (Jude Hill) and his extended Protestant family, who have no quibbles with their Catholic neighbours and want nothing more than to go on living their lives. Will they be forced to pick sides, or will they have no choice but to leave Northern Ireland entirely in the hope of finding a better future?


Based on his own experiences growing up as a child in Belfast during the height of the Troubles, Belfast is clearly Kenneth Branagh's most personal film yet, and it's also clearly one of his very best.

No – to get most of the criticisms that have been hurled at the film out of the way - it's not a searing examination of the decades-long civil war that rocked Ireland for much of the last century, nor is it a universal account of growing up during the Troubles. What it is, very simply, is a filmmaker sharing his own, most intimate childhood memories with the rest of us by crafting a beautiful, hilarious, heartbreaking memorial to a time and place that he left behind over half a century ago. And yet, it's not some indulgent vanity project or something that will appeal only to those who lived through it. It's a crowd-pleaser of the very, very best kind.

Like the best personal tales, it finds its universal appeal in its particularities. Even if Belfast in 1969 is a far cry from your own home town and the events depicted here have nothing to do with your own formative experiences – that's certainly the case for me – the way Branagh is able to capture the tiniest details of the place, people, and times in which he grew up, ironically makes it possible to see ourselves and our own childhoods in his story.

Reflecting how Branagh remembers this period in his life, the film is shot in gorgeous black and white with moments of glorious technicolour shining through when our young hero is at the cinema or theatre, but it also is a perfect representation of the shades of grey of the world being depicted. In this black and white world, memories of bewildered confusion at the arbitrary violence bursting out all around him sit next to the joys and frustrations of being in love for the first time, while barely understood glimpses of strife between his parents are set against a backdrop of ever-present grandparents, cousins, aunties and uncles who make their small tenement-type house feel like a bustling metropolis of loved ones. And if the house is a city, then the street is the world; one full of people who know your name and you know theirs, greeting each of them as you pass them by daily in the short treks between your house, your school and your church.           

Criticisms that the film is overly sentimental doesn't just miss that some of the tougher aspects of the Troubles, as well as the more personal financially-driven marital tension, are clearly present; it most importantly misses how the events depicted are seen through the eyes of a child – or perhaps better, the eyes of a child reflected back in the eyes of that same child, now an adult in his late fifties.

Everything, from the abundance of low-angled shots to the way the arguments between Buddy's parents (played brilliantly by Caitriona Balfe and Jamie "Let's Forget About the Whole Christian Grey Thing" Dornan) are often seen just out of reach, gives the film a real sense that we're watching a childhood play out. And by having the story unfold as a sequence of short vignettes of moments both tiny and world-shattering, tumbling carelessly into one another in a way that only memories – and dreams – are wont to do (though, unlike memories or dreams, they're presented here, mercifully, in chronological order), it's a childhood seen through the sometimes hazy, sometimes rose-coloured and fanciful mind's eye of an adult looking back at that childhood.

Though Belfast is very much Kenneth Branagh's story, one that he produces, writes, and directs, he's certainly not the only reason the film works as beautifully as it does. This lived-in but personal vision of 1969 Belfast is perfectly recreated by the film's production, design, and hair and makeup teams (and makes a perfect case for the defence of having these categories included in the upcoming Oscars telecast) and much of the look of the film, of course, comes down to cinematographer and frequent Branagh collaborator, Haris Zambarloukos, and veteran editor Úna Ní Dhonghaíle (whose name may just be the most Irish thing in a very, very Irish film that also includes Caitriona Balfe, Ciaran Hinds, and a cracking soundtrack from Belfast native and man most representative of the sometimes huge divide between art (joyous) and artist (grumpy SOB), Van Morrison).           

And then, of course, there is the exceptional cast that includes Balfe (Ma), Dornan (Pa), Judi Dench (Granny), and in what may be his greatest performance in a long career of playing "oh, cool, it's that guy" in countless films and TV series (an Irish Richard Jenkins, in other words), Ciaran Hinds (Pop). Sure, I'm still working on forgiving Mr Dornan for playing one of the most unbearable protagonists in recent movie history – I'm sure he's trying to get over it too – but he's legitimately great here and a cast this good all but guarantees a certain level of quality. The real secret weapon of the film, though, is young Jude Hill, who, at all of ten years of age, carries the film with a warm, funny, and entirely convincing performance. If he wasn't great, the rest of the film – even with all its Class-A ingredients – wouldn't work at all, but he is, and it does. Spectacularly.

There have been those who have taken quite against the film (a 75 on Metacritic and a 7.3 IMDB score is hardly "universal acclaim"), but I have no earthly idea how. It's a brilliantly made film, yes, but unlike, say, the Power of the Dog (which was mostly just boring and/or annoying), it's also thoroughly big-hearted, generous of spirit, heartbreaking, and frequently hilarious. And with the world, once again, on fire, it could hardly have come along at a better time.

ALSO READ: In conversation with Jamie Dornan and Caitriona Balfe about Belfast


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