The narrow focus of writer-director Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast is often to its benefit. Shaped in key moments by the eyes of a young boy, Branagh’s black-and-white work tells a colourful story of childhood and family, set against the political violence of late-60s Northern Ireland. Given that contrast, the film cannot delve into every complexity of the conflict—nor does it want to. This is a simple story of heart, one clear and easy enough to be understood by all.
Buddy (Jude Hill) is the young boy in question in Belfast, taking in the world of his neighbourhood block with his Protestant family during the Troubles. With jobs scarce in the meantime, his father (Jamie Dornan) labours overseas, while his mother (Caitriona Balfe) does what she can to keep their household together. Like most boys (Protestant or not), Buddy’s days are spent running around and learning about what it is to be alive. Naturally, there’s a joyful spin to many of his scenes, juxtaposed with the looming background menace and before the film’s inevitable turn to familial drama. With grandparents played by Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench, both of whom slip effortlessly into their roles (and offer up quality monologues), the interweaving of the narrative here is obviously diagrammed, if not ineffective. Branagh, meanwhile, has his sharp monochromatic cinematography (thanks to Haris Zambarloukos) to rely on in underlining his images and Van Morrison on the soundtrack. If that latter part sounds a touch tedious given the time and place: know that it is indeed of a piece with the entire endeavour.
Branagh does hit all the marks he’s supposed to with Belfast, there’s little doubt about that. But there’s a thin line between charming and cheesy (or, worse still: clichéd) and as carefully as the film tiptoes that line at times, it enjoys dancing on it too. What the film shows is neat and surely authentic—who am I to question Branagh’s own memory?—yet it also feels like something we’ve seen before, the film’s blinkered perspective somehow glimpsing only shadows.