Kenneth Branagh directs a moving film about a working class Irish family impacted by the Troubles.
Historical films — especially those about devastating and traumatic events — require a precarious balance. If you focus too much on the events themselves, you risk erasing the humanity of the people who experienced them, coming across like a dry textbook. Dive too deeply into the personal — especially if your characters are fictional or fictionalized — and there’s always a chance you’ll make a maudlin melodrama that uses history as little more than a backdrop. This balance becomes exponentially more difficult to maintain when your audience’s main point of access to your story is the eyes of a child, because you’re at constant risk of nostalgia muddying up the proceedings.
Given the subject matter of Belfast and Kenneth Branagh’s deep connection to it (although the film is not a memoir, there are a great deal of similarities between the fictional family and the Belfast-born writer and director’s own), he could have easily faltered with this particular story. It would have been easy to forgive him if he did. Hell, he probably would have made a decent film even if it got too sentimental. This is Kenneth Branagh we’re talking about, after all. But what he’s done instead is craft a film that’s as measured as it is miraculous.
Set in Northern Island in the late 1960s, Belfast is the story of a boy and his family who were already struggling to navigate the personal triumphs and tragedies of working class life when the Troubles came quite literally to their doorstep. Buddy (Jude Hill) likes movies, plays, TV shows, and his classmate Catherine. He’s desperately trying to improve his math skills so that he can sit closer to her and eventually marry her. His kindly Granny (Judi Dench) shares his delight in stories and his doting grandfather (Ciarán Hinds) helps him with math and Catherine. Pa (Jamie Dornan) does his best to provide for his family with out-of-town jobs as a joiner, and Ma (Caitríona Balfe) does her best to keep her family afloat in the face of mounting debt. The mounting sectarian violence in their community exacerbates their problems, but also makes them cling more tightly to their joys. Which makes Ma and Pa’s decision more difficult when they are forced to choose between the only home they’ve ever known and a fighting chance in the outside world.
Branagh renders all of the family members’ lives with delicate care. Buddy’s story never downplays or erases the severity of the situations surrounding him, but it also makes space for his remaining childhood innocence and wonder. His efforts at trying to understand and accept what’s happening are captured with a great deal of compassion and a refreshing lack of coddling or patronizing. And Jude Hill embodies Buddy with an incredible amount of life and maturity. (There’s an early scene in which Buddy is caught in the middle of a riot that masterfully captures both the immediacy and terror of the external event and the child’s dazed and almost dissociative state. It’s a marvel of direction, acting, cinematography, and sound design.) All of the adults in Buddy’s sphere are granted their own rich inner lives in addition to the roles they play in his, and the top-notch cast run with it. A couple of those performers add such an impassioned heft to an unexpected dance number, of all things, that it has the potential to become an instant classic.
Written, performed, and captured with measured grace, Belfast packs an emotional punch so subtle and slow-burning that you might not recognize its power until it’s already gutted you. There are three groups of people to whom the film is dedicated right before the credits roll. All of their memories are well served by this beautiful picture.