A nostalgic eulogy to the Belfast of his youth, Belfast is Kenneth Branagh at his best. In this semi autobiographical film set in 1969, Branagh juxtaposes the banal childhood of 9-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill) with the beginning of The Troubles in North Belfast.
Belfast is based largely on Branagh’s own childhood experiences, as his family moved to Reading when he was nine to escape what was only the beginning of decades of violence in Northern Ireland. This incredibly personal approach imbues the film with the undeniable sentimentality. More often than not, the word “sentimental” is used as a negative descriptor for much film and literature. But in this case, I think that it is exactly the sentimental nature of Belfast that allows it to triumph. With a heavily Van Morrison-dominated soundtrack, we are shown a childhood tainted by The Troubles but ultimately not defined by them. For Buddy, a crush on his classmate Catherine (Olive Tenant) is still ultimately his biggest concern. Belfast makes the important point that nostalgia is not reserved solely for picture-perfect points in your life, and it is in fact eminently possible to form fond memories within troubled times.
Everything is shown through wide-eyed Buddy’s rose-tinted gaze, with this complex conflict boiled down to the good guy, Buddy’s Pa (Jamie Dornan), and the bad guy, Protestant unionist and local criminal, Billy Clanton (Colin Morgan). Whilst this could be deemed overly simplistic, this innocent perspective allows for a distinctive authenticity throughout, with the repeated use of low-angle shots reflecting the way in which Buddy idolises his Ma, Pa, Pop (Ciarán Hinds) and Granny (Judi Dench). This simplicity is furthered through the monochrome cinematography. According to Haris Zambarloukos, the film’s cinematographer, “black-and-white photography lifts the veil on the soul a little bit better than colour can”. The lack of colour along with use of largely natural light prevents any distractions from the actors’ performances, narrowing the audience’s focus to the expressions and emotions of the characters.
The content of the film also retains a sense of this black-and-white split. Branagh strikes a perfect balance between idyll and grim reality. The opening scene presents the street as a paradise, where everyone knows everyone, with other adults on the street passing onto Buddy that “Yer Ma says yer tea’s ready”. This bliss is quickly shattered when Protestant loyalist rioters turn up to attack the Catholic houses in the street. Another notable point of contrast is the recurring references to space, with Buddy completing a school project on the moon landings and Star Trek playing on the television. Whilst space exploration promises opportunity and progress, Ma and Pa face the difficult choice between Belfast and England, between familiarity and safety.
Belfast, however, is far from solemn, seeming to function also a love letter to film and theatre, featuring in colour, in vibrant contrast to the rest of the film, snippets from One Million Years B.C (1966) and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968), as well as a performance of A Christmas Carol. Likewise, most of the action of the film takes place on a single street, giving the film a definite theatrical feel.
Belfast has been nominated for seven Oscars and won a Golden Globe for Best Screenplay. Although it is more than deserving of this critical acclaim, I believe the root of its success is that it seems it was written not to impress, but instead, as the dedication in the closing credits reads: “For the ones who stayed. For the ones who left. And for all the ones who were lost.” This witty, coming-of-age drama is far more personal than it is political. It offers no complex, intellectual commentary on the tumultuous late-60s in Northern Ireland, but instead flourishes in its warm, understated, and authentic portrayal of a young child’s experience of love, loss, grief, and goodbyes.