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Review: 'Belfast' (2022) Dir. Kenneth Branagh

Jude Hill, Caitríona Balfe, Jamie Dornan, Judi Dench, Ciarán Hinds, Colin Morgan, Lara McDonnell, Gerard Horan, Turlough Convery and Tom Wilkinson


Director Kenneth Branagh goes back to his roots in Northern Ireland for a drama looking at the start of a 30 year conflict that shaped the country, and the everyday people living it, forever...

Belfast, 1969. The Northern Ireland conflict between the Catholic and Protestant faith is emerging, putting many families at risk of violent clashes and protests in the city streets, with the military and law trying to keep peace.

Many families live in the middle of the social turmoil, and young Buddy (Hill) lives with his Ma (Balfe) and Pa (Dornan), Granny (Dench) and Pop (Hinds) on one such street. Pa wants a way out for his family, but must also live day to day to provide.

Surrounded by danger and unknown threats, the family must still have faith and courage to live their lives and Buddy strives to experience the joys of childhood even in the face of danger. Ma and Pa won't stop however to bring peace about for their family whatever the cost...

After a wonderful opening sequence that transitions from what looks like a 2021 drama into an 1960s soap opera, we are immediately thrust from technicolour into black and white period piece. Yet as much as it's joyful seeing neighbours chatting without a care in the world and kids playing in the street, it's not long before we see the reality that director Kenneth Branagh wants to show; a violent, dangerous reality of the Northern Ireland conflict in 1969, fuelled by politics and clashes between the Catholic/nationalist and Protestant/unionist.

It's a personal film for Branagh, himself born in Belfast in 1960 so would have been the same age as young Jude Hill's Buddy experiencing all of the changes in culture, politics and religion at that time. From evaluating where best to live in a dangerous world, working hard at school or taking family trips to the picture house to watch the escapist magic of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, Branagh doesn't shy away from reminding us of the childhood a certain generation will never forget, especially surrounded by the troubles faced by many in Belfast.

It's near impossible not to warm to our main family, the wide-eyed, energetic and vulnerable Jude Hill parented by Irish actors Jamie Dornan and Caitríona Balfe, with veterans Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds as grandparents.

Hill as Buddy especially carries the light of innocence for this film where there is always hints of darkness, either from violent neighbours looking to fund their own line of work, or the military helicopters whirring overhead and spotlights searching streets at night. Buddy just wants to live his life and experience everything one should as a child, such as getting good scores in school, catching the eye of the pretty girl or playing Thunderbirds. Even when he's beaming with happiness one moment but reduced to tears the next, it's this constant mirror image of war and peace / good and bad that makes Belfast a sweet but tense watch, you can never truly relax as you just want the best for Buddy and his family.

Hinds and Dench make a solid pairing, tinkering with DIY or baking fresh bread in the background of the home, trying to keep their family grounded amidst stressful times like all good grandparents should. Equally, Dornan and Balfe embody the parents and married couple who bear the brunt of pressures to keep the roof over their head, but support their family without showing signs of weakness. You truly buy into the normalcy, yet distress, of things.

In fact, it's hard not to warm to our street that evokes a time certainly far gone by. There is an innocence and joviality always on show with music playing from homes as business goes on as normal and children playing football and soldier, getting up to mischief. Yet on the other hand the street is blocked by razor wire, armed guards and sandbags to help segregate the threat of protest and violence. But somehow it all feels normal. Such is the way these people lived on a day to day basis.

The cinematography stands out from Haris Zambarloukos due to it's simplicity. Steady framing of the simple rooms our family live and play in, slow tracking to follow them with their cups of tea, tax letters or other factors that drive their narrative. Nothing detracts from the performances on screen, and with Branagh's stage background, it's hard to think of this not working in the theatre with the few locations used that encapsulate an entire city.

Even as the stakes are raised during the final twenty minutes (without ever feeling melodramatic), Hill is a joy to watch amidst the chaos and uncertainty, looting a box of washing detergent when forced to accompany a violent march because it's best for his family. And this is what the core of Belfast is about - family, and the lengths you go to provide and protect them seen through the eyes of impressionable youth.

Branagh does a sterling job as writer and director, and it's clear he has lived the story on screen and makes this a very real, very character driven experience. It's everything that successful dramas are founded by - real people living real lives in a very real society, and this tribute to the people of Northern Ireland is built on equally successful factors.

'Belfast' presents a very real, very normal look at a very real period in the history of Northern Ireland. A stellar cast under the direction of Kenneth Branagh make for a charming, immersive and well produced drama.

'Belfast' is a co-production between Northern Ireland Screen and TKBC

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