By Wendy Knowlton
22 February 2022
Belfast opens with a scene of nostalgic sweetness. It’s 1969 and Buddy (Jude Hill) fights dragons in his local laneways, as mothers call children in for tea. This is a community where everyone knows everyone, and all seems cosy and secure. But violence erupts as Protestant vigilantes target the mixed street, marking and trashing Catholic houses. A blazing car explodes, paving stones are ripped up for barricades and suburbia becomes a warzone, a microcosm of a wider world in which the Troubles are beginning.
Kenneth Branagh’s film, based on his own childhood, is wistful and charming. Since we see everything through Protestant Buddy’s nine-year-old eyes, the conflict his country is facing hovers around the edge of his consciousness only. While Ma (Caitriona Balfe) has to worry about back taxes, and Pa (Jamie Dornan) commutes to England for work while also resisting pressure to join organised violence, Buddy’s concerns are simple. He wants to stay in Belfast, see his beloved Granny and Pop every day, and work out how to marry Catherine – a girl from his school.
Buddy is even drawn to the advantages of Catholicism. Apparently, they can commit any sin, confess afterwards, and all is forgiven. His own minister preaches hellfire for those who choose the wrong path. But the conflict portrayed prioritises power over religion. We see local thug Billy Canton (Colin Morgan) pressuring young boys into making “deliveries”, or one of Buddy’s neighbours demanding people he knows perfectly well declare their names and intentions at the makeshift barricades before he’ll let them pass.
However, the strength of this community counters much that threatens to tear things apart. While Granny (Judi Dench) and Pop (Ciaran Hinds) provide the warm and sometimes acerbic background to family life, Buddy’s parents, exude steely strength and passion. Pa triumphs in a real-life showdown of light and darkness, an embodiment of the heroes of Buddy’s pop culture fantasy life where High Noon and Star Trek dominate. Branagh uses colour when the family watch Chitty Chitty Bang Bang or A Christmas Carol to represent the vibrant power of imagination and escapism, but their own lives are hardly black and white. As they dance in the beleaguered street, or celebrate together at a wake, this is a community that knows as much of joy as conflict.
Ultimately, for those who refuse to take a side, there seems little choice but leaving, and yet, as Ma sadly states, Belfast is all they know. England may be safe, but it is not home. She and Pa have lived in the same streets all their lives. Everyone and everything is familiar. From a place of belonging, they will go to a place of exile where their accents will brand them, and they’ll be blamed for British casualties in the Troubles. Branagh’s beautiful film is a tribute to the past and a place. As they leave, Granny, who stays behind, wills them not to look back. Buddy does. And it’s heartbreaking.
Belfast has been nominated for eight Academy Awards including Best Picture. It is showing at selected cinemas, including Village, Hoyts and Palace