We open in August 1969, as Molotov cocktails ignite a street of terraced houses in the titular city. It is a largely Protestant district, dotted with Catholic families, and until now these neighbors have lived in harmony. Not any more – Unionist hardmen are torching the Catholics out of their homes, and no sooner have the fires burned down than armed barricades go up.
It is a chaotic, terrifying time for anyone buffered by the crosscurrent of these winds of change, but especially so for nine-year-old Buddy (newcomer Jude Hill), who watches events unfurl with little comprehension of the politics at play. News bulletins dedicated to the Troubles play on TV, and he overhears urgent conversations between his ma and pa (Caitriona Balfe, Jamie Dornan) and grandparents (Judi Dench, Ciarán Hinds). But his understanding is filtered through the movies and television shows he loves – Star Trek, High Noon, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang...
Shot in lustrous monochrome that is both immediate and nostalgic, this autobiographical tale by Kenneth Branagh looks to his own childhood in Belfast, before his parents opted to move the family away. Though informed by the Troubles it is not a film about the Troubles, favoring as it does coming-of-age set-pieces and sweetness over enmity and despair. It also finds the time to suggest how a young lad from Northern Ireland grew up to fashion Hollywood extravaganzas like Thor, Cinderella, and Murder On The Orient Express. In a marvelous touch, the movies that Buddy escapes into at the pictures are shown in their full Technicolor glory; the vivid hues of One Million Years B.C. are brilliantly reflected in viewers’ spectacles in the black-and-white audience.
For some, Belfast will be a case of rose-tinted glasses, its softening of hard edges representing a sop to sentimentality and commercialism. Here, the working-class milieu invites imagination, adventure, and camaraderie rather than a Ken Loach-style crushing of hope, while a climactic confrontation on divided streets is framed like a thrilling showdown in a black-hat-vs.-white-hat western. But it is the child’s- eye view, the wit, and the generosity of spirit on show that elevate Branagh’s Belfast. Only when something is this personal can it be universal, and we are fortunate to sneak a peek at this love letter penned to his neighborhood, his family, his childhood self.
Belfast is in cinemas now. For more, check out the most exciting upcoming movies heading your way this year and beyond.