History is vast, and in theory, infinite. Knowing all the ins and outs of every country can be tough for even the most hardened of historians, but Kenneth Branagh tries his best to educate us with a slice of life drama set in Belfast, Northern Ireland, during “The Troubles.”
Rife with violence, a lot of people around the world learn of the turbulence of Northern Ireland that came to a head in the late 1960s, but fewer really know the nuances of it, and even fewer have experienced it. The legendary Kenneth Branagh lived through it, and puts his life into a light autobiographical format with Belfast, complete with fictional analogs.
At the very core of Belfast is Buddy, a young boy who’s roughly nine, living with his Protestant family amidst their conflict with Catholics, plus other splinter cells of Protestants. There are a few subplots at work, set to the overarching theme of turmoil, and all of them funnel into Buddy’s life in some way.
We see from the point of view of his parents, trying to manage this chaos, and their family and marriage. Buddy’s grandparents are also present, offering advice to the entire unit, played to perfection by long-timers Judi Dench and Ciaran Hinds. No character feels wasted here, as all of them have a part to play.
“…Kenneth Branagh tries his best to educate us with a slice of life drama set in Belfast, Northern Ireland, during “The Troubles.””
But the secret sauce of Belfast is the spot-on casting for Buddy. Child actor Jude Hill’s turn is effortless, and one of the more subtle young performances I’ve seen in a prestige film in years. The choice to allow Buddy to be a kid instead of thrusting him into serious circumstances constantly allows Hill to shine here, and show off his potential on multiple ends of the dramatic and comedic spectrum.
Buddy is simply allowed to be a kid in this script. He isn’t acting wise beyond his years, like an omnipresent cartoon character. He reacts to some events beyond him as a child would, and we get to be present for those same plot points as the audience, and make our own judgment.
Branagh’s decision to film in black and white benefits Belfast, framing it as a period piece. Every era-appropriate choice, including set design and costuming, funnels into this vision of providing a snapshot in time. Putting Van Morrison (The Belfast Lion) at the forefront was also a smart move, and doubles down on the cultural impact of the film. Very rarely cloying, Belfast benefits from having a Belfast native at the helm, influencing both the direction and the screenplay. It’s both an easy watch and something that’s not easy to watch, in terms of the acts that are occurring on screen.