‘Belfast’: Kenneth Branagh Triumphantly Captures His Childhood in Northern Ireland

Every generation sees artists of a certain age begin to produce work intensely focused on their memories. Now in his early 60s, Kenneth Branagh dives into biographical drama with the wistful “Belfast.” Rarely a director of subtle statements, here Branagh feels like a filmmaker urgently digging through specific moments of his childhood, bringing them to life with tenderness and fury. What the best films of this kind do is express in purely organic fashion how the seeds of the artist were planted early on. The result can be inspirational without getting bombastic. Branagh hailed from working class roots, in a Northern Ireland being set aflame by the Troubles. Searing personal conflicts were going on at home and in the streets. For a young boy, the movie theater and stage were wondrous escapes, fleetingly hinted at in a panorama of vibrant moments.

Branagh’s focus is specifically on the year 1969. Clean black and white frames imagine a bygone Belfast, where 9-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill) lives with parents, Ma (Caitriona Balfe) and Pa (Jamie Dornan), as well as older brother, Will (Lewis McAskie). Real life crashes on Buddy in a shattering fashion when Protestant gangs carry out attacks against Catholics in his neighborhood. It is the time of the Troubles, when Catholic nationalists sought Northern Ireland’s independence from the UK, while the Protestants mostly favored the status quo. Buddy’s family is Protestant but, Pa wants to stay out of the conflict, which he sees as senseless hate. They have enough economic uncertainty to deal with and Pa already spends most of the year away working in England. Buddy’s days orbit around school, where he crushes hard on a blonde, Catherine (Olive Tennant), the streets, and home, hearing wisdom passed on by grandparents Granny (Judi Dench) and Pop (Ciarán Hinds). As social unrest increases and English troops begin to arrive in Belfast, Buddy’s family bonds threaten to break.

Branagh’s screenplay is a fine work that flows like a series of episodes within a grander idea. Like “Cinema Paradiso” or “Fanny & Alexander,” Branagh creates the sensation we are seeing life unfold through the eyes of its young protagonist. No title cards give windy explanations of the historical context. All we can see from Buddy’s vantage point is that factions are forming in Northern Ireland for reasons beyond his comprehension. What is of immediate concern to him is moving up in the class test scores, so he can finally get to sit next to Catherine. Comparisons will be made to other B&W biographical opuses such as Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma,” but Branagh goes for a rushing sensation that feels like how we tend to remember distant experiences. They are snippets and flashes, so the movie moves with a great pace, and in an era of movies that all run so long, “Belfast” is only 1 hour and 38 minutes. Branagh doesn’t even go for some grand orchestral score. Another notable Irishman, Van Morrison, provides the music with eight of his classics and an original song written for the movie.

In its headlong energy and mixture of the intimate and grand, we can see how Buddy would later grow up to be the director who made Shakespeare adaptations like “Henry V,” where you can feel the mud and steel, but also the poetry. With his constant cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos, Branagh conjures moments of passive beauty, like Ma sitting by the stairs, wondering what the future will bring, to moments where Buddy runs through the streets and its colorful denizens, uncaring and free. Neighbor Moira (Lara McDonnell) teaches him the ways of shoplifting. The grey skies over Belfast are almost dreamlike, which is how our memories tend to remember the environments of our past. British soldiers and their rifles tower in frame, capturing how such a scene must look and feel to a child. The cinema becomes the ultimate escape, as it has always been for families who can’t afford expensive vacations. Branagh injects color for the films Pa and Ma take their kids to see, including Raquel Welch in “One Million Years B.C.” At home John Wayne is on TV and Buddy watches in rapture. 

Yet in its eloquence “Buddy” is also a rugged collection of family memories. Branagh does not shy away from pain. Protestant thugs corner him in an alley and tell him to send a message to Pa, who is warned he can’t stay so neutral in the brewing conflict with the Catholics. Buddy asks Granny if she ever wanted to cross over into England when Pop was a worker and she sadly shakes her head, in her own way saying what she doesn’t want to explicitly tell her grandson. Like many working class families, the freedom of childhood is colored by memories of uncertainty. Everyone in this neighborhood is in debt, with Irish humor making life a bit more bearable. Tanks roll through the streets, but Buddy walks in on Ma throwing plates at Pa in a fury over more financial trouble he forgot to articulate. There is devotion in this marriage, but it’s also strained by circumstances as Pa leaves for weeks on end to work in England. Branagh writes and directs with a sensitive yet sobering eye. Life, even with the love of others, is hard. Buddy adores his grandparents, especially Pop, who gives sensible advice on how to woo Catherine. But his health is frail and Buddy will have to learn that part of life means age taking away people in our lives, one at a time.

Under Branagh’s direction all of these performances strike perfect notes. Jamie Dornan, famous for “Fifty Shades of Grey” and singing to seagulls earlier this year in “Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar,” is a sympathetic working man out of “The Grapes of Wrath” here. Caitriona Balfe is a great counterweight to Dornan as the mother who does the best she can, which is the best anyone can do as a parent, and puts on a brave face when Pa has to leave yet again for another round of weeks. As parents they give moral lessons, but Branagh remembers them with real sincerity. Pa tells Buddy the conflict enveloping Belfast is based on blindness, and that their home will welcome anyone from anywhere as long as there’s mutual respect. During a Protestant riot, Ma forces Buddy to return a looted item even as everyone else raids the destroyed shop. Sometimes parents leave their kids with lessons worth more than any material item. Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds nearly steal the show as the two grandparents who have been through enough to where they can joke and smile, even while civil war threatens to break out. But we still see the sadness in their eyes of having lived and seen so much. But all the talk will be about Jude Hill as the loveable, rambunctious conduit of Branagh’s childhood. Hill is full of life and wits, topped with that natural naivety of pre-adolescence. His imagination flies and he talks a lot, which is no surprise considering the thespian Branagh would later be, even filming all of “Hamlet” in 70mm. 

“Belfast” marks a triumphant return for Kenneth Branagh. Acclaimed in the ‘90s for his Shakespeare adaptations and invigorating originals, Branagh had recently become more of a standard, commercial director. For a while he seemed locked into the Marvel-Disney wheel, having made the first “Thor,” “Cinderella” and last year’s puzzling “Artemis Fowl.” He even did one of the Jack Ryan entries. It seemed the director, who had turned “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” into a bombastic opera, had been tamed. Sometimes a filmmaker finds the best inspiration in what they truly carry inside. “Belfast” is an admirable film in how Branagh transforms experience into universal art. Buddy’s story has been lived by migrants from Central America, who fled the civil wars of the ‘80s, or by refugees today leaving Middle Eastern war zones. We have all gone through the process of slowly realizing as we grow that life becomes an expanding story full of joys, fears, loss and gains. There may be troops in the streets, but the film finds time for ecstasy when Ma and Pa sing and dance to Carl Carlton’s “Everlasting Love.” This combination of humanity within the wider scope of history, taken from an artist’s direct experiences, makes “Belfast” one of this year’s best films.

Belfast” releases Nov. 12 in theaters nationwide.