The movie opens with tourist bureau beauty shots of modern Belfast before jumping back in time to the film’s black-and-white vision of the city in 1969. The Troubles have come to 9-year-old boy Buddy’s (Jude Hill) street. There’s the Unionists, the Ulster Protestants, who want Northern Ireland to remain within the United Kingdom. They are in in violent dispute with Irish nationalists, mostly Irish Catholics, who want Northern Ireland to exit the United Kingdom to join a united Ireland. Buddy is inquisitive but he doesn’t understand what’s going on when an explosion sets his neighborhood, a mix of Catholic and Protestant households, on edge. He’s too busy being smitten with Catherine (Olive Tennant), the pretty girl who sits in front of him at school.
Buddy’s father (Jamie Dornan), a construction worker whose job takes him to England for weeks at a time, is very much aware of the situation. Local hardmen advise him to join the Unionist cause… or else.
For the rest of the tightly-knit family, Ma (Caitriona Balfe), older brother Will (Lewis McAskie) and grandparents (Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench), life goes on, but the city’s increasing violence forces them to make a choice; Will they stay in the only home they’ve ever known, or relocate to safety in a strange city?
Seen through Buddy’s eyes, “Belfast” tackles big subjects like religious intolerance, senseless neighbor against neighbor violence and ethno-nationalism, but focusses on the effect of those elements, not the elements themselves. That perspective allows Branagh to set the scene with the dramatic opening, a series of period television news broadcasts and the concerned looks on the faces of the adults. But set against a time of upheaval, this is a family drama, but not a political one.
Branagh calls “Belfast” his most personal film, and it feels like it. Every frame radiates with the warmth of the connection Buddy shares with his family, and his family’s relationship to their home and country. Hill’s coming-of-age performance is the anchor that keeps the movie from drifting off course. His joy and infectious laugh when his grandfather cracks a joke is delightful, and you can really see the gears turning as he struggles to figure out why his once peaceful neighborhood isn’t the Eden it once was.
The performances are uniformly interesting, but Balfe, as Ma, shines as a steely, protective presence.
Hinds and Dench, as Buddy’s grandparents, are frisky, lovable and bring an intimacy to their portrayals of people who have been married forever, that is the very definition of heartfelt.
“Belfast” is a lovely, earnest movie that paints a vivid picture of a time, a place and, most importantly, its people. The scenes of Buddy and family at the movies, or crowded around the television also reenforce something many of us have realized during the pandemic, and that is the importance of art—in this case, the movies and television—as an escape from the stark realities of the world.