‘Belfast’ Review: A touching insight to family life in a turbulent world

Rachael Dunphy

Rachael Dunphy

★★★★☆

When the rest of the world found themselves in lockdown once again, Sir Kenneth Branagh began recreating his childhood home – on an airport runway in Hampshire, and began shooting his newest directorial feature ‘Belfast’.

‘Belfast’ is a semi-autobiographical film exploring Branagh’s own experiences as a child during The Troubles in Northern Ireland. The film, which is written, directed and produced by Kenneth Branagh, is seen through the eyes of Buddy – a nine year old Protestant boy living side by side with Catholic neighbours in what appears to be harmony. The audience’s introduction to 1969 Belfast is of one where life is without fear, a typical childhood where Buddy plays with a makeshift sword and shield made out of a wooden stick and a dustbin lid. Within seconds of the scene’s opening, he’s dragged off the street by his ‘Ma’ (Catríona Balfe) as civil unrest takes over the children’s playground. 

The film’s volatile state is enhanced by the fact that bar the opening titles which shows the titular city in colour, ‘Belfast’ is filmed in black and white. While black and white motion pictures are not very common in recent times, the cinematography by Haris Zambarloukos draws an audience into 1960’s Belfast as if we were there on the streets ourselves. This is not the first time Branagh and Zambarloukos’ partnership has made mesmerising cinema, with the pair boasting a successful string of film’s together such as the 2015 remake of ‘Cinderella’, and this year’s highly anticipated ‘Death on the Nile’. 

The ensemble cast for ‘Belfast’ is so well formed that sometimes you forget they are in fact acting. Jamie Dornan, arguably most known for his roles in the ‘Fifty Shades’ franchise, does a complete ‘180’ as ‘Da’, Buddy’s working class Protestant father who works away in England, only returning once a fortnight to see his family. Dornan’s chemistry with Catríona Balfe screams from inside the screen, rivalled only by the warm and typically Irish relationship of Buddy’s grandparents, ‘Granny’ (Judi Dench) and ‘Pops’ played by Ciarán Hinds. Their lighthearted bickering is shown as a testament to just how much they love each other and their large family. The stand-out performance from ‘Belfast’ however has to be Jude Hill. Making his film debut, Hill turns Buddy into a warm, charismatic character with just enough of a glimmer in his eye to cause some mischief. 

One of the highlights of ‘Belfast’ is the vast soundtrack provided by Belfast native Van Morrison. Music adds a light air to the serious undertones of the film. Van Morrison’s hits such as ‘Days Like This’ and ‘Wild Night’ enhance the notion that the characters in this film are just an ordinary family, who are living, growing and healing in such an extraordinary time. An unlikely highpoint of the film is Buddy’s ‘Da’ (Dornan)’s impromptu performance of Love Affair’s ‘Everlasting Love’, which not only shows off Dornan’s impressive voice, but comforts the entire community at a time of utter despair.  

Despite the clearly sensitive topic of The Troubles, Branagh manages to capture the heart-warming nature of family in ‘Belfast’. It’s made clear throughout the film that Buddy’s family have no prejudice towards any religion, and just want what’s best for one another. Standing at a running time of just ninety eight minutes, it’s surprising how much Sir Kenneth Branagh fits into this film. After he already took home the Golden Globe for Screenwriting at this year’s awards, it’s clear ‘Belfast’ will be one to keep a close eye on this awards season. 

By Rachael Dunphy

Image credit: IMDb