Shot in gorgeous black and white, this tribute to Branagh’s own early years in Belfast, Northern Ireland as a child in the 1960s isn’t entirely autobiographical.
The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards earlier this year, winning for Best Original Screenplay. Other gongs include the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival, and the BAFTA for Outstanding British Film, and it’s easy to see why.
A wonderful glimpse into the era, Belfast offers a glimpse into day-to-day life: good people try to live their lives while bullies set out to destroy the harmony of their neighborhoods and their trust in one another.
The Troubles were dark, and terrible things took place, but Sir Kenneth shows the lighter side as well. Clever Pop (Ciaran Hinds plays the boy’s grandad) gives funny and often useful advice. Ma (Outlander star Caitriona Balfe) holds the family together, especially when Da (Jamie Dornan) is working in England. Buddy’s brother, schoolmates, cousins, and other relatives and neighbors keep life vibrant.
Leading the story, Jude Hill’s Buddy is exceptional. He is only starting out in his career, but we hope he remains an actor. His portrayal is natural and believable, no matter the scene.
The rest of the cast are also uniformly excellent, featuring long-time colleagues, such as the late John Sessions, to whom the film is dedicated. Gerald Horan and Michael Mahoney play an uncle and a neighbour, and, of course, Dame Judi Dench is captivating as ever as Granny.
The story is shown from Buddy’s perspective, from 15 August 1969. The opening scene shows a busy neighborhood where children can run free and play, safe under the protection of everyone, Protestant and Catholic alike, until the outbreak of the riots and the subsequent television coverage.
If you have read the early autobiography Sir Kenneth wrote, 1989’s Beginning, you will recognise some of the things in Buddy’s life, including the matchbox cars his Da brought back from England for him. (There’s even a tiny Easter egg that Marvel fans will appreciate!)
Beautiful, dark, sad, heartwarming, and funny, Belfast boasts evocative and sometimes beautiful cinematography, while the costuming, hair, makeup, and set dressing are all excellent.
Most strikingly, it’s also an all too recognisable portrait of the bigotry and hate seen around the world in 2022, and the damage those things can wreak at any time in history.
Extras: Bonus features include an alternate ending, a selection of deleted scenes, a behind-the-scenes featurette titled A City of Stories: The Making of Belfast which explores the characters, the shooting location and Branagh’s own experience growing up in Ireland, another featurette called Everyone’s Inner Child featuring cast members Jamie Dornan, Caitríona Balfe, Ciarán Hinds, and Judi Dench reminiscing on their childhoods, and a full feature commentary from writer/director Kenneth Branagh.
Reviewed by Eileen M. Forster.