Belfast (12A ) |Close-Up Film Review

Dir. Kenneth Branagh, UK, 2021, 98 mins

Cast:  Jamie Dornan, Caitriona Balfe, Jude Hill

Review by Carol Allen

Kenneth Branagh’s film recreates his childhood in late sixties Belfast – a childhood which was suddenly overshadowed and shaped by “the troubles” – the conflict between Protestants and Catholics.

The film grips from its shocking opening sequence.  August 1969.  Children are playing on the street, a street in a largely Protestant area where Catholic and Protestant neighbours live amicably as part of the same community. Suddenly the peaceful scene is shattered by an explosion of violence.  Mothers run to scoop their children to safety.  “The troubles” have begun.

Branagh wrote and directed the film, based on his childhood memories though it is not a direct autobiography.  At the centre is ten year old Jude Hill as Buddy.  Work is hard to find so his Pa (Jamie Dornan) works in England and only gets home every other weekend, leaving Ma (Caitriona Balfe) to cope with Buddy and his elder brother.  

Pa would like the family to join him in England, even more so once the troubles kick off.   But Ma is reluctant to leave the world she knows and particularly her ageing parents, played by Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench, in a warm portrayal of a lifelong marriage of love and affectionate bickering.  

The story is seen through Buddy’s eyes.   He is an imaginative boy, who loves the movies but now has to come to terms with his world becoming like a movie – gun play, explosions, check points at the end of his street.   And villains.   The always versatile Colin Morgan personifies one of the Protestant bullies, who, like the bad guys in films like High Noon are prepared to use threats and violence in order to impose their will on the people in this formerly peaceful little community,

Made largely in black and while, apart from a few archive shots, Branagh’s film recreates the period in loving and also terrifying detail, while young Jude Hill is a delight. 

Wide eyed in church as the preacher gives a fire and brimstone sermon reminiscent of Ian Paisley.  And one sequence both chilling and funny when Buddy is forced by an older girl to join her gang looting a Catholic corner store.  Unsure what to do he grabs a packet of washing powder, because, as he explains to his angry mother when he takes it home, “It’s biological, Ma.”