Belfast is a drama film written and directed by Kenneth Branagh, based on his own childhood spent in the Irish city. Set around the dark days of the Northern Ireland Conflict in 1969, the film follows a young boy and his family and their neighborhood, as they try to cope with sudden violence all around them. Being a deeply personal film, Belfast carries itself well enough for most parts and provides an entertaining and often funny watch.
Buddy, a young boy of nine, lives with his parents and brother in a working-class neighborhood in the city of Belfast, Northern Ireland. On August 15th, 1969, while playing in the neighborhood with friends, Buddy witnesses a violent riot erupt in front of his eyes where a group of people rile up and attack some targeted families, harass them, and do significant damage to their houses. Following the attacks, the neighborhood works together to help their friends and neighbors get back on their feet, and also creates a blockade to keep a check on the people entering and exiting the street. Growing up while a conflict only starts to brew all around the country, Buddy is well aware that the attackers were Protestants who targeted Catholics and wanted to drive them out of their homes. He is raised mostly by his mother (Ma) and the caring company of his elder brother, Will.
While his father (Pa) works in England throughout the week, he visits the family on weekends and often takes the kids to the theater. Buddy loves Hollywood films and watches them whenever and however he can. He is almost scared by the Church building and the harsh speech of the minister about two roads separating: one leading to Heaven and the other to Hell. Meanwhile, the situation gets worse in the city. The British army has already arrived on the scene, and the local leader of the Sectarian riots, Billy, threatens Pa multiple times to join their cause. Buddy overhears his parents discussing the idea of moving to England or some other foreign country, which Pa yearns to do as he struggles to pay off overdue taxes, but Ma disapproves, saying that they belong in Belfast.
The kid tells his grandfather about this, but when asked what he wants, his childish innocence takes over, and he says that all he wants is to be the best footballer in the world and marry Catherine, the girl he likes in school. However, it is difficult for a young and innocent boy to stay out of trouble in such tumultuous times, and in the company of his cousin Moira (a teenage girl herself), Buddy gets involved in a group that vandalizes and loots a supermarket. The event strikes the final nail in the coffin and makes the family reconsider once more about moving to England.
Belfast is a film of sweet remembrance about the innocence of childhood, although spent in times of conflict. The conflict between Irish Protestants and Catholics, that had only begun around that time, continued to take bloodier turns and drive out innumerable people from the country. Despite not originating over religious issues, but rather about the status of Northern Ireland as a country separate from the Republic of Ireland, the conflict quickly resulted in the persecution of Catholics for historical reasons. The film, of course, does not explore or talk about any of this, and understandably so, since it is completely built from the perspective of a nine-year-old kid. It is not difficult to realize the auto-biographical touch of Branagh here since most things are presented in a way that his younger self would probably remember. Although shot almost totally in black and white, the only scenes of color are the films playing on the big screen as Buddy watches them, along with the Christmas musical that he watches with his family.
Every scene of intense drama and action plays out in slow-motion, much like the aesthetics of Hollywood cinema that Buddy (Branagh) was a fan of. Although the sense of childhood memory in the formal aesthetics stays limited to only this element, there are little hints of Branagh’s works in the content. For example, young Buddy is seen to receive a novel by Agatha Christie on Christmas and is also later seen reading a Thor comic book, and Branagh himself has directed films on Thor and an adaptation of Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. The director presents the entire narrative, setting, and scene as he remembers them from childhood, and does a fairly good job of doing so.
Belfast does lack some depth and perspective in it, but it never intends to deliver any of it in the first place. It has its moments of heartwarming comedy and emotions, especially in the scenes where the young boy is with his extremely sweet and supportive grandparents. Scenes of the whole family spending time together around the city, on Christmas, and in a very dramatic moment towards the end are also very warm to watch. Overall, Belfast is an extremely watchable and rather enjoyable film to see, provided that one does not expect much to take away from it.
Belfast is a 2021 drama film written and directed by Kenneth Branagh.