BELFAST Is A Lovely Nostalgic Look To A Troubled Time

Kenneth Branagh is a director known for making a wide range of films. He has made numerous Shakespeare adaptions, Disney films, an MCU offering, etc. However, Belfast is his most personal film because it is a semi-autobiographical story.

Buddy (Jude Hill) is a young Protestant boy growing up in a working-class neighborhood of Belfast just as The Troubles flare up. The Catholic residents get hounded out of the neighborhood by the more militant Protestant community members. As the sectarian tensions grow, Buddy also sees problems with his parent’s marriage and their finances, issues involving his grandparents, and falling for a girl in his class.

Nostalgia has dominated the cultural landscape in recent years. It has been popular and profitable. Branagh set out to reclaim the true meaning of nostalgia by making a sincere reflection about his childhood.

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Belfast was told from a child’s point of view. Buddy overheard conversations about his parents’ financial issues, his grandfather (Ciarán Hinds) having health issues, and Buddy’s dad (Jamie Dorman) getting pressured by Billy (Colin Morgan) to join the cause. Due to Buddy’s age, he only had an inkling about what was happening, and the adults tried to protect the boy from the worst aspects of these issues.

Buddy’s age made him innocent, and he wasn’t judgemental towards Catholics. He spoke like a child regarding Catholic practices: he did not speak out of a place of prejudice or hatred. When Moira (Lara McDonnell) told Buddy how to tell if someone’s a Catholic, Buddy picked holes in her logic.

Buddy was fortunate that his family didn’t have any prejudice towards Catholics, so he didn’t inherit any negative views. The film pointed out that the neighborhood was mixed before the militants hounded the Catholics out. Protestants and Catholics were friends and neighbors, and the children played together before Billy led the mob against the Catholics. Belfast had a great opening where it showed Buddy’s neighborhood was a close-knit community. The children were playing games, their mothers called them in when dinner was ready, and older children helped the adults round up the kids. This wholesome vision quickly turned to panic and terror when the mob attacked the street.

Belfast showed the early events of The Troubles. Communities were purged of Protestants and Catholics, makeshift walls were constructed, and the British army was sent to try and maintain the peace. The economy of Northern Ireland suffered because of the issues. Buddy’s dad had to work in England and could only visit his family once a fortnight. The violence and the economy were factors to Buddy’s parents debating on whether they should leave Belfast, the only place Buddy’s ma has ever known.

Belfast did feel a little like the sitcom Derry GirlsDerry Girls followed a group of teenage girls (and the wee English fella) in 1990s Derry. Both were about growing up in The Troubles, and both took the wisest approach: show people trying to live their lives. In Belfast, characters go to work school and spend time with their family. In Buddy’s case, he gets up to misadventures like trying to sit next to a girl he liked in school or getting roped in by Moira to steal from the local shop. It was all relatable. The film’s villain used The Troubles for his own financial gain than any conviction.

Branagh did sneak some references to his own body of work and showed his influences. Buddy was reading a comic book, and at Christmas, there was a book written by an author Branagh had adapted. The film showed Buddy having a love for cinema and TV; an experience Branagh must have had as a child. However, a scene where the family watch Chitty Chitty Bang Bang looked more like a commercial than how a family would watch a film.

Belfast did have an excellent cast. Hill was a strong child performer and did have some sweet interactions with Catherine (Olive Tennant). But Hill’s Buddy was a passive character since he was a child; he was just a spectator to events. Balfe and Dornan were terrific as the parents. Balfe was the mix of loving and stern that a mother would be and having to do with the financial, personal, and social strains put upon her. Dornan showed he could play an everyman character who has to be the breadwinner, be a good father despite being away in England, and protect his family from the poisoning effects of The Trouble. Despite their marital issues, Dornan and Balfe did play a believable and caring couple.

Belfast was at times a meandering experience because it straddled numerous plotlines, yet it managed to be a wonderful film that showed one family’s experience amidst The Troubles.

Kieran Freemantle
Kieran Freemantle
I am a film critic/writer based in the UK, writing for Entertainment Fuse, Rock n Reel Reviews, UK Film Review and Meniscus Sunrise. I have worked on film shoots. I support West Ham and Bath Rugby. Follow me on Twitter @FreemantleUK.