Kenneth Branagh’s drama Belfast kicks off in a penetrating, travelogue color filmed in the present day with drone views of the Titanic dry dock and Van Morrison keening in the background. The camera tracks over a modern mural of long-dead shipyard workers before peeking into the past – 15 August, 1969, to be precise – blinking to autobiographical black and white. For a minute we’re invited to witness a sanitized version of life on a street in Belfast, Ireland, where everyone knows everyone else and looks after one another from grand mum to wee lad.
Nine-year-old Buddy (wee lad Jude Hill) inhabits a back-alley world of chocolate-box terrace houses and renegade children. His family, which includes Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds’s appealing Granny and Pop, find escape from their poverty in American movies.
Some more clever camera work signals the arrival of The Troubles on Buddy’s street. Glimpses of Royal Marines with the FN rifles and Saracen armored cars which soon became synonymous with life in Belfast are given short – critics have said far too short – segments of screen time, although we remind ourselves that this story is being seen through a child’s eyes.
Buddy’s family are Protestants, their Catholic neighbors targeted by a growing sectarian hostility. His Pa, Jamie Dornan, is a laborer who commutes to England – returning home to a money woes and violence brewing on the streets. Ma (Caitríona Balfe) fights to manage their dwindling funds while keeping the family together.
Denigrated for what some say is a romanticized view of a country in crisis, Belfast rolls along as Ma and Pa evaluate a decision to abandon Belfast in favor of a new life elsewhere, while young Buddy deals with motivations to stay.
OUR RECOMMENDATION: Stream it. The film is being talked up as a leading candidate for Oscar nominations and it’s about a place we’ve been to and been charmed by.
WHY WE LIKED IT: Mixed feelings as it brought back much of what we remember of Belfast – a passing shot of neatly aligned dustbin lids triggering a memory of the tinny thumping prelude to a riot marking the death of a Hunger Striker a decade later. Good dialogue and use of language – though cloaked in a brogue and difficult to understand much of the time.
GOOD LINES: “The Irish were born for leaving, otherwise the rest of the world would have no pulse.”
Available on Amazon Prime.