‘Belfast’: You might fall in love with Branagh’s love letter to his hometown

“Belfast” – Aug. 15, 1969.  Apollo 11 landed on the Moon the month before, and a modest music festival called Woodstock kicked off that day in Bethel, New York. 

These two landmark events took place 384,000 km and 5,087 km away, respectively, from Buddy (Jude Hill), an inquisitive and lively kid from Belfast, Northern Island.  Well, the said engineering marvel and rock concert might as well be 100,000,000 km away because Buddy’s world is his mom (Caitriona Balfe), dad (Jamie Dornan), brother (Lewis McAskie), granny (Judi Dench), and grandad (Ciaran Hinds).  Well, let’s include his friends and Catherine (Olive Tennant), his classmate at Grove Park Elementary School, too.  Our young hero wants to marry Catherine someday, but hey, he has to speak to her first.

Oh, the poor kid.  How to break the ice?  

Buddy (Jude Hill)

As writer/director Kenneth Branagh’s film opens, Buddy pretends to slay dragons with a wooden sword and trash can top when Ma (Balfe) calls him home for dinner in their friendly and neighborly brick row housing community. 

Life seems pretty swell for “Buddy from Belfast”, as his Pop (Hinds) calls him once.

Not so fast, because some Northern Irish neighbors are fighting with one another, and not just with their fists.  The Troubles – a 30-year conflict between Catholics and Protestants – began in the late 1960s, and it takes Buddy and most everyone by surprise.  Looting, gunfire, arson, and harmless knocks on front doors followed by threats are the ingredients in this explosive concoction, but Ma, Pa, Will (McAskie), Granny, Pop, and Buddy still have to get up each day and get along.  For the moment, however, they have to live with the nearby (or next-door) aggression and bloodshed.

Branagh was born in Belfast, so this movie is personal, deeply so.

During a Q&A after a Sept. 12 Toronto International Film Festival “Belfast” screening, Branagh said that once COVID shutdowns began in March 2020, he put pen to paper and wrote this screenplay. 

He added that he wanted to write this story for 50 years.

Ma (Caitriona Balfe) and Pa (Jamie Dornan)

Since the five-time Oscar-nominated actor/screenwriter/director was born on Dec. 10, 1960, he would be 8 years young on Aug. 15, 1969.  This partially autobiographical film is a love letter to his hometown, that yes, features the violence and tension of the day.  It’s a central theme, but Branagh dives into warm, frank, and hilarious memories of family, neighbors, and schoolmates that peacefully challenge the surrounding on-screen conflicts.  

For a movie situated in the middle of a sporadic clashes, you – indeed – find yourself smiling a lot during “Belfast”.  Buddy often interacts with his mom, dad, and grandparents, and they offer him blunt discourse, but sometimes, it’s laced with humor.  For example, Pop gives Buddy valuable advice to address long division in his math class, as he recommends fudging the actual numerals. 

To help his odds of figuring out an equation correctly, hey, a 1 could be a 7, or a 2 could be a 6, right?  

Branagh pens dozens of everyday moments, comments, and simple glances with heartfelt zeal.  These brief – but frequent – exchanges between family members (and some others) offer real surprises that pop off the gorgeous black and white screen.  Speaking of pop, Kenneth also includes several pop culture references, and each specific visual mention lands a cinematic bullseye.

Buddy (Hill) and Pa (Dornan)

We get an absolute sense of Branagh’s childhood memories during this short and (mostly) sweet 97-minute film.  He pays thoughtful homage to them and Belfast by majestically framing countless shots with the precision of a scientist filled with joy and nostalgia.  Meanwhile, Hill (a charismatic wonder), Hinds, and Dench will frequently keep you in stitches. 

(For the record, Hinds and Dench are treasures!)

Still, the local violent struggles are either on-screen or lurking somewhere off, and Ma and Pa need to make a life-changing decision on whether or not to stay in Belfast.  The danger is genuine, and while Pa works in London (and only comes home every other weekend), Ma attempts her best to keep the family safe and financially afloat.  Balfe and Dornan are rock solid as Buddy and Will’s folks, but since Pa is frequently out of town, Caitriona makes the most of her frequent screen time with a performance worthy of a supporting Oscar nomination.  Look, existing in 1969 Belfast can be a difficult task, but family is everything despite the arguments and tough love.

Ma (Balfe)

Branagh seems to have poured his heart and soul, his everything – including an accompanying toe-tapping soundtrack filled with a wildly famous Belfast native – into this film.  Fifty-two years ago, this city was Branagh’s entire world, and in 2021, he may have just become Belfast’s leading travel and tourism ambassador.  Who needs the Moon or Woodstock?

As they say in Belfast…Yeo! 

⭐⭐⭐ 1/2 out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Written and directed by: Kenneth Branagh

Starring: Jude Hill, Caitriona Balfe, Jamie Dornan, Judi Dench, Ciaran Hinds, Olive Tennant, and Lewis McAskie

Runtime: 97 minutes

Image credits: Focus Features

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