Peter W Sheehan 22 November 2021

This Irish-British drama tells the story of a young boy, who is reared by a loving family. He and his family live amid traumatic events occurring in Belfast, Northern Ireland, in the late 1960s.

BELFAST. Starring: Jude Hill, Judy Dench, Ciaran Hinds, Jamie Dornan, and Caitriona Balfe. Directed by Kenneth Branagh. Rated M (Mature themes and coarse language). 98 min.

This Irish-British, black-and-white film (which includes coloured scenes from old movies) is a coming-of-age drama, that focuses on a young boy, Buddy (Hill), who lives with his parents and grandparents in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The screenplay was written by the film’s director Kenneth Branagh, and the movie was filmed in and around London, and in Belfast. The film focuses heavily on Buddy’s childhood. The title of the film is the city of Branagh’s birth, and the film is set in 1969 during the height of the conflicts and skirmishes between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland. Branagh and Dench have worked creatively together in many films, and were especially impressive in All is True (2018).

Buddy lives with his working-class, Protestant parents (Dornan and Balfe) and close to his grandparents (Dench and Hinds) amid the tumult of Belfast. Buddy grows up, surrounded by sectarian violence, and a future away from the conflicts seems bleak and unattainable. Buddy finds special consolation in his close-knit family environment – he loves his caring parents, and he especially appreciates what his beloved grandparents do to keep him happy. Buddy’s Pa is forced to work part-time away from Belfast in England, and wants to leave Northern Ireland to ensure his family’s safety. Doing so, however, means leaving loved ones behind, and the strength of a family community in Belfast is a powerful counter-force. If Buddy and his parents escape from the conflicts and violence of Northern Ireland, Buddy is frightened that he will never see his grandparents again.

Hill excels in the film, and the acting of everyone in Buddy’s family is impressive, especially Balfe, Buddy’s Ma. Dench and Hinds convince in their portrayal of Buddy’s grandparents, who have a loving commitment to each other. A wonderful scene where Dench and Hinds get up to dance alone evokes a feeling hard to forget of the joy that binds two elderly, married people together.

This is a moving film, and throughout one sees evidence of Branagh’s personal involvement. As well as screen-writing and directing, Branagh co-produced it, and he gives the movie a wistful, autobiographical tone. This is a film where Branagh looks back nostalgically on difficult, turbulent times in Belfast. The film opens with graphic scenes showing a Protestant group marching to torch and bomb Catholic houses. At its core, however, the film concentrates on Buddy’s personal confusion about what is taking place around him, and his struggles to understand what is occurring. Racial and religious conflicts and tensions occur constantly, but it is a child’s perception of them that endures. Buddy’s affection for his family lives in his memory, and this is a movie of a child coming to grips with being reared in demanding times – politically, socially and culturally. Multiple features of the film work cinematically to make the movie a memorable viewing experience. One of these features is the film’s use of Irish accents in full rhythmic swing to be enjoyed (though, at times, with a little difficulty) by viewers. The film’s black-and-white cinematography is outstanding.

This period-film stresses the power of memory for events of the past. It is filled with warm, human, and comic touches, despite the trauma of the times and the political conflicts the movie otherwise explores. Because Buddy’s story is based on Branagh himself, the realism of personal direction rings true. What is most important to Branagh is the expression of humanity in threatening times. The film never understates the violence of the political turmoil in Belfast, but at its core the movie is a powerful testimonial to family solidarity, and bias-free togetherness.

Universal Pictures International
Currently on Festival release in cinemas. Public release in cinemas, 13 January 2022

Image: (from left) Jamie Dornan as ‘Pa’, Caitriona Balfe as ‘Ma’, Jude Hill as ‘Buddy’, and Lewis McAskie as ‘Will’. Credit: Rob Youngson / Focus Features