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Belfast

Director – Kenneth Branagh – 2021 – UK – Cert. 12a – 98m

*****

1969, Belfast, Northern Ireland. The life of a young boy and his family is impacted by The Troubles as Christian sectarianism explodes into violence on their street – out in cinemas on Friday, January 21st

Bookended by colour images of contemporary Belfast, Northern Ireland, this swiftly traverses a colour montage to pan up a wall to the black and white photographed 1969 beyond. The closing moments also feature the genuinely touching legend, “For the ones who stayed, For the ones who left, And for the ones who were lost.”

Elsewhere, apart from family trips to the cinema to see the likes of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (Ken Hughes, 1968), where the clips from the movie and light reflected from it onto the black and white audience are in colour, everything else (including other aspects of the family cinema-going experience) is entirely in black and white.

The first ten minutes are a particularly tough watch, as images of kids playing footy, hopscotch or knights in armour (wooden swords and dustbin lids) in the streets give way to nine-year-old Buddy (ten-year-old Jude Hill) returning home to find men with clubs breaking windows on his street, hurling Molotov cocktails and shouting, “get these fockers off your street.” The residents on his street are predominantly Protestant, with the few Catholics as targets.

These two religious working class factions have hitherto managed to live peacefully side by side, but the men (in Northern Ireland at this time, it always seemed to be men) of violence see it differently and want to push the community in a sectarian direction. Within days, the TV news announces British troops’ deployment on Belfast’s streets (I remember the daily TV reports of violence in the city from my English childhood). Buddy’s pa (Jamie Dornan) stands against the division, telling his son, “There is no our side and their side”, a stance that will put him into direct conflict with local protestant militant organiser Billy Clanton (Colin Morgan).

Pa only turns up every two weeks or so, because his work in the building trade has taken him to the English mainland. This means that the day-to-day running of the family (in politically fraught circumstances) is left to Buddy’s ma (Caitríona Balfe), something of a force with which to be reckoned although she’d be lost if she had to leave the place, a move her more widely travelled husband is considering in the best interests of his family.

Also on Buddy’s horizon are his gran (Judi Dench) and grandpa (Ciarán Hinds). The former insists the family attend church, where the preaching is of the hell and damnation variety. The latter, whose respiratory health is slowly failing thanks to years working in the mines in England, is a constant source of wisdom and advice for Buddy as he navigates, among other things, how to get closer to the girl he likes at school.

The whole plays out as a convincing, compelling slice of life; a ‘family movie’ in the best sense, in that it’s about a child growing up and coming to terms with a world suddenly upended from the seemingly utopian community he knew previously. Hinds is particularly good as the grandpa with a constant twinkle in his eve who’s also a practical realist, while newcomer Jude Hill succeeds in spades pulling you inside the world of the nine-year old Buddy.

I’m not sure you could make a film like this if you hadn’t lived it, and although Branagh’s script is only loosely based on his own experience, as you watch Buddy’s story on the screen it has an authenticity to it. The memories have been percolating in Branagh’s head for quite some time, and it’s good to see them materialise as images on the big screen.

If all Branagh’s films to date but one were to be swept away and that one were to represent his achievements as a filmmaker, Belfast would be that film. An altogether remarkable and authentic movie about life-changing, childhood experience, it’s also terrific as an essay on dealing with the ever-present threat of violence on the doorstep in your community. If they’re old enough, and you think they could cope with this, take your kids with you. Because despite its seemingly grim subject, there’s something magical about this film too.

Belfast is nominated for Best Picture in the 2021/22 (94th) Oscars as well as Best Supporting Actor (Ciarán Hinds), Best Supporting Actress (Judi Dench), Best Director (Kenneth Branagh), Best Original Screenplay (Kenneth Branagh), Best Sound.

Belfast is out in cinemas in the UK on Friday, January 21st .

Trailer:

Trailer 2:

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