Warning: This film review doesn’t contain outright ending spoilers, but I do refer to events that happen later in the story. I’d always recommend you watch the film first and then come back to read reviews afterwards.
Many of us are used to seeing mass acts of destruction, protest and violence on the news, but not many of us have experienced this type of social upheaval in our local communities or our day-to-day lives. Kenneth Branagh’s “Belfast” uses the backdrop of the 1969 Northern Ireland Riots to explore how an event of this type affects the people on the ground, in this case, a nine-year-old boy and his family.
The film is based on the director’s real-life experience of growing up in Belfast during this time of unrest. The fact that this is a personal story is what I believe gives it so much depth. You can tell that many of the moments scattered throughout the film are real and true. There’s a sense of authenticity which is difficult to fake. It’s something that you only find in the best of films, in works of art that communicate on a human level.
We follow Buddy (Jude Hill), a young boy with an enthusiastic zest for life. He plays out with his friends on the streets of Belfast; he’s known and popular in the community. When the riots begin, Buddy and his family are thrown into a world of uncertainty as the threat of violence hangs over them. Gangs form on both sides. One of these gangs is led by Billy (Colin Morgan) who puts pressure on other families in the Protestant community to contribute towards their efforts. Buddy’s father (Jamie Dornan) refuses to let himself or his family become involves in the conflict and soon makes an enemy out of Billy. With his family now being targeted by both sides, Buddy’s father considers moving them away from Belfast, but the strong ties they have to their home city are difficult to break. Buddy’s mother (Caitriona Balfe) is particularly resistant to moving away, in a frank conversation with her husband, she describes how they have lived in the same close-knit community for their entire lives and confesses her concern that they wouldn’t be able to integrate anywhere else.
Belfast is not so much a story about the 1969 riots, as it is a story about home and community. Through the eyes of Buddy, the viewer is transported back to a time and place where community sits at the heart of daily life, an idea that has become foreign to many of us. There is a definite sense of nostalgia for times of old. The film is crafted as though the story is being told by an older version of Buddy looking back at his childhood – which is basically what Kenneth Branagh is doing. Moments in the story are somewhat fragmented and, on the surface, may seem insignificant or irrelevant to the main events of the plot. The point is that these are the moments Buddy remembers. They have significance to him. In the same way you recollect specific moments of your childhood which may not have been the most relevant to the “adult” events taking place at that time. An example of these less relevant moments are the times we see Buddy at the local cinema and theatre with his family. Buddy falls in love with movies as the story progresses, which seems to be his way of distracting himself from the events going on around him. His passion for the movies is demonstrated through the brief use of colour in an otherwise black and white film.
One of the central issues this film wrestles with is whether belonging to a community has the power to lift us up or drag us down. The answer seems to be both. Belfast explores the positive and negative aspects of community life. On the positive side, are the feelings of acceptance, security and well-being a life like this can offer. Buddy has a nice childhood, despite the problems going on around him. His love for his home city is clearly demonstrated with how upset he becomes at the prospect of moving away. However, our eyes are also opened to how a community can turn into a tribe when put under pressure. This tribalism doesn’t come from community itself, but through the combination of community and moralism. In the case of the Northern Ireland riots, it was born out of a conflict between the two denominations of Christianity, but we also see the same combination ignite problems in everyday life. An example of which would be the conflict, and sometimes violence, between fans of opposing sports teams. Similarly, the question of responsibility is raised. To what extent are individuals within a community responsible for acting in the interest of that community? Buddy’s father refuses to engage with the gangs encouraging criminal behaviour in the name of protecting the community, but many others may have felt it was their duty to do so. What we can take from these questions is that community can offer us security but also keep us trapped with moralism and an expected sense of duty. These are issues that the modern world struggles with as much as it did back in the 1960s. You can notice these dynamics playing out in how your country is run and even within your own family.
The casting of Jude Hill as Buddy is key to what makes this film work. He delivers a performance that is humorous, emotional and believable. Buddy represents innocence in a world that is being corrupted and the young actor is able to pull that role off to perfection under the guidance of director Kenneth Branagh. The relationship Buddy has with his grandparents (Ciarán Hinds & Judi Dench) is also a great addition and their scenes together are some of the best of the film. My only complaint about Belfast is that a couple of more plot-driven scenes near the end of the film felt a little forced. There is one specific scene in which some of the characters find themselves in danger. This scene worked in building tension, but the way it was executed didn’t seem particularly believable, at least for me.
Belfast is one the early favourites to pick up best picture at this year’s academy awards. It deserves to be in contention, however, I’m not sure if it would be my winner pick. I need to watch some more contenders before making that decision. Overall, Belfast is a film with a lot of heart and some brilliant visuals. There’s a definite vision from the director and a theme that gives the viewer a chance to reflect on some of the most important questions around society and community. If you’re in the mood to be transported to a world of times gone by then Belfast would be a good pick.
Written by Ben Worrall (January 2022)