“Belfast” is a wonderful little slice of life drawn from writer/director Kenneth Branagh’s own childhood during “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s. It shows what it was like to be a child in a world of insecurity, as well as the difficulty of raising kids and keeping them safe during that era.
The story centers on ten-year-old Buddy, who’s still of an age when a stick and a trash can lid serve as a sword and shield while playing with other kids in the streets. But the make-believe runs smack into ugly reality when a gang of Protestants swarm the street where Buddy lives, trashing the homes of Catholics and menacing them, in an effort to get them to move out of a neighborhood in which families of both faiths co-existed for decades. Soon, soldiers are guarding the ends of the block, and everyone’s on edge.
Buddy’s mother (Caitriona Balfe) witnesses all this while trying to get her son out of harm’s way. She’s essentially raising Buddy and his brother single-handedly while her husband (Jamie Dornan) spends long periods away on a construction job in England because there’s no work for him closer to home. When he does return every fortnight, he does his best to help manage the family, which includes his aging parents (Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds), who are also part of the neighborhood.
Branagh made a real find in casting newcomer Jude Hill as Buddy. He’s absolutely perfect as the lens through which we experience life on that street. As for Balfe’s breakout portrayal of Ma, I won’t be surprised when it leads to her getting more big roles in other productions. She plays just the right mixture of strong and sympathetic as a mother who recognizes the danger present on her block, yet resists Pa’s efforts to move the family away to start anew in England. Balfe and Dornan have real chemistry as a married couple trying to keep their relationship from coming unglued while struggling to pay the bills and keep their sons safe. As you’d expect, Dench and Hinds are perfect as the grandparents, evoking both warmth and heartbreak every time they’re on screen.
One of the highlights of “Belfast” is when the family goes to a theater to see a brand new movie called “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” and reacts with pure joy when the car sprouts wings and begins to fly. Dench has said in interviews that she’d never seen the Dick Van Dyke classic, so her surprised reaction in “Belfast” was entirely genuine.
Except for opening and closing scenes which show the modern-day city in color, Branagh shot “Belfast” in black and white, which allowed cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos to play with shadows and light to highlight the simplicity of life through the boy’s eyes while also framing the daily tension that filled the adults’ thoughts. It’s accompanied by a score by Van Morrison, including many of his own songs. I’ve soured on Morrison because of his anti-vaccine activism during the pandemic, but I can’t deny that his songs still sound great and provide an appropriate soundtrack for the movie.
The Irish accents are a little difficult to understand at times, but people who eventually watch this on a streaming service will be able to use subtitles. I enjoyed “Belfast” enough on a big screen to rate it a 9 out of 10. It’s a lock for my Best Movies Of 2021 list at the end of next month. Opens today in theaters.