Belfast Review: A fairytale for the history books ★★★★☆

4 mins read

Told from the eyes of a nine-year-old boy in 1969 Northern Ireland, Belfast is a story of life on the cusp of conflict and the frailty of peace.

The semi-autobiographical account of Kenneth Branagh’s own childhood in the North, Belfast follows Buddy (played by Jude Hill) as his family navigates the increasing violence, on the streets they once called home.

(Left to right) Caitriona Balfe, Jamie Dornan, Judy Dench, Jude Hill and Lewis McAskie.
Image credit: Focus Features

The first thing to understand about Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast is that it isn’t real.

Instead, it is a dreamland where Ulster protestants call themselves Irish without pause and British soldiers help carry sofas for locals.

Branagh’s Belfast is a coming-of-age story for Ireland’s religious tensions in the 20th century, and like growing up, it tends to romanticise all the troubles.

However, there is still a lot to love about the film’s sentimentality.

Haris Zambarloukos’ black-and-white cinematography is perfect in highlighting this nostalgic depiction of Northern Ireland’s capital city. However, watch out for the tourism board montages in the introduction of the film.

Zambarloukos said himself in a recent interview with Gold Derby, that choosing to film in black and white heightened the emotional intensity of the film,

“You could feel what the actors felt a little more deeply in black-and-white…it will not create a feeling or an emotion that is not there, it helps the audience see it in a more lucid way.”

Jamie Dornan and Caitriona Balfe play Pa and Ma.
Image Credit: Focus Features

And, wow, do these actors deliver. Jamie Dornan, Caitriona Balfe, and Judi Dench are all at their best while Ciarán Hinds and Jude Hill both steal the show in heartfelt scenes that bring together the two generations of performers.

Plus, almost (I’m looking at you Judy!) everybody’s accents were up to standard, which is a rare occurrence on the Irish screen which usually goes across the water for actors who conveniently forget their dialect coaches’ numbers before filming.

Even Jamie Dornan’s accent was good, which shouldn’t have been a worry for me given his Belfast roots but after experiencing his attempt at Westmeath in the ridiculous Wild Mountain Thyme (2021), I wasn’t too sure.

One thing that has stuck with me after the credits rolled was how familiar each character was to me. Pop has tried, in vain, to teach me long division at the kitchen table. Balfe’s depiction of an Irish mammy has chased me down the road for a hiding.

This is a testament to Branagh’s script, but also to the actors who understand the real people they are trying to represent.

Kenneth Branagh (right) directing his young lead, Jude Hill (left).
Image credit: Focus Features

Despite being such a personal project for Branagh, he is out of his comfort zone as audiences are used to his films coming with a wealth of source material attached.

His adaptions of Shakespeare and Christie novels, although enjoyable, tend to belong to GCSE classrooms rather than arthouse cinema schedules.

However, I do like what Branagh achieves with Belfast. In spite of all its romantics, this film does try to show that the Troubles were not just a chapter in a history textbook but a violent clash that split families, turned children into soldiers and divided communities for decades to come.

Belfast may be a caricature at times, but it does have its little moments of truth and it is a charming love letter to a childhood marred by conflict.

Featured Image credit: Focus Features

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Film and Tv Editor at Brig Newspaper. Currently studying Journalism and English at the University of Stirling

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