Of late, there has been a resurgence of a movement in which filmmakers bring their own stories to life for the big screen. The latest visionary to follow the trend is Sir Kenneth Branagh, writing and directing coming-of-age drama Belfast. Inspired by his childhood during the beginning of The Troubles in the late 1960s, the semi-autobiographical plot centres around mischievous nine-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill) as he navigates school, religion, and his first crush. As hostility descends onto his close-knit working-class street, his ‘Ma’ (Caitríona Balfe) and his ‘Pa’ (Jamie Dornan) struggle with the rising tensions and are faced with a potentially life-changing decision for the family.
By presenting this turbulent period of time through the perspective of a little boy, there’s a light-heartedness to the tone of the narrative that never delves too deep into the politics or violence. Instead, Buddy’s inquisitive, roguish nature explores the big questions in an amusing way, his naivety fading away as he comes to terms with the fact that his neighbours are trying to kill each other. Branagh shoots the piece in a rich black and white, lending the film a very cinematic style that smartly ties in with the protagonist’s burgeoning love of the pictures. Fond of space movies and cowboys, Buddy sees his town transform into the wild west as his family head into the unknown; the director toys with these ideas as he constructs his scenes, adding a playful flair that cuts through the story’s darker themes.
Authenticity is key in a personal film such as this, and this comes from the all-round excellent cast and their performances. Newcomer Hill is wonderful in his feature debut, possessing just the right combination of vulnerability and wiliness for the part. Balfe and Dornan make his parents’ challenging marriage wholly believable and are responsible for striking the most emotional chords in the script; the latter also shows off his vocal talents with a stirring rendition of Everlasting Love. Furthermore, screen veterans Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench are marvellous as Buddy’s crafty grandparents. Tender moments as they impart wisdom to their grandchild are so well written and delivered, and really capture the sentimentality of those often too-short-lived relationships.
Affectionately crafted and beautifully portrayed by its formidable cast, Belfast brilliantly illustrates the closeness of community, then proceeds to show how quickly it can be ravaged by terrible conflict. However, by telling the troublesome tale through the bright eyes of an imaginative child, it’s a poignant, comical reflection of Branagh’s boyhood.