It’s 15th August 1969 and Buddy, as played by Jude Hill, is fighting imaginary dragons with a wooden sword and a dustbin lid. However, outside there are far scarier things than dragons when a group of Protestants attack Catholic homes in Buddy’s street.
... "Go. Go now and don’t look back."
Firebombed cars burst into black and white flames and director Kenneth Branagh quickly sets out Belfast‘s stall in velvet textures of monochrome imagery. This doesn’t mean per se that Belfast is a movie full of rose-tinted reverie and but neither is it hard-as-nails realistic either. If anything, it’s a fond memory of what was lost. Seen through the soft focus of a childhood memory, Buddy laments the friendship and sense of shared community that has been snatched away. And in a way, that’s fair, as it would be near impossible to capture all the seeds of division that would be sown in the following years.
Story-wise, Jamie Dornan as Buddy’s father will commendably have no truck with the sectarians looking to purge their community of Catholic families. All of which makes an impression on Buddy’s fragile, formative mind. However, in amongst all the rage and uncertainty, cinema, as seen in full-blown Technicolor, is a place of wonder and refuge. Similarly restorative are the performances of Ciaran Hinds and Judi Dench as Buddy’s grandparents. Whilst TV and radio broadcasts mark out the deteriorating paranoia and sectarianism, both of these two acting stalwarts help Buddy with his amorous longing for the smartest girl in school.
Yet, the real dark end of the street that threatens the bright side of their road, is the kids’ future. What kind of life can Buddy’s parents as played by Jamie Dornan and (an excellent) Caitriona Balfe offer their family? Torn between leaving and staying, Caitríona Balfe‘s performance as Buddy’s mother becomes central to the film’s themes.
In the end, as a love letter folded into the frames of a film, Kenneth Branagh has managed to ask many tough questions whilst avoiding any trite responses either. If anything Belfast is a film about history and a sense of welcoming community that was snatched away by fear and resentment.
Should you see Belfast? I’ll leave it to Judi Dench: “Go. Go now and don’t look back.”