Writer and Director: Kenneth Branagh
Kenneth Branagh’s most autobiographical film celebrates the collection of streets he grew up on in Belfast as well as the valuable, loving family who gave him his first taste of cinema and theatre. Set in 1969 and 1970 as the Troubles were starting, this, often heart-warming, film opens and concludes with decisive acts of community violence, but in between there is love, grief, innocence, fear, life, death and so much warmth. A love letter to Belfast.
Buddy lives with his parents on a mixed Protestant and Catholic street in Belfast with his grandparents a few doors away. With his father working in England for weeks at a time, Bobby fills his days with trying to be better at maths so he can sit next to the girl he likes, watching Westerns and playing. As the demands on the family increase, Buddy becomes aware of his father’s desire to emigrate with the family but neither Buddy nor his mother are prepared to leave their home.
Branagh has made a truly beautiful film about childhood, home and the innocence of good people set against a subtly changing backdrop of violence and social unrest. Filmed almost entirely in black and white in homage to the 1960s kitchen sink movies that are refenced in almost every frame, those visual references include following characters legs, looming low shots that create a tense fish-eye perspective and scenes through doorways showing interior and exterior together.
The film takes Buddy’s point of view almost entirely and while the camera isn’t always at his height, we see character and incident through his eyes; the kindly, heroic father, the fretful mother and their devotion as a couple, his wry grandmother and wise, adorable grandfather. But Branagh also uses this stylistically to foreground the children when overhearing segments of parental conversation that they cannot understand, the adults at the back of shot, while the larks of being the smallest, getting up to mischief, a first crush and favourite toys equally push the adult world of The Troubles into the background, a hazy circumstance that explodes in consequence to fill Buddy’s world only on occasion.
As Buddy, it’s a fantastic turn from Jude Hill whose dominance of the film’s emotional development is extraordinary for a young actor not in the least overawed by his illustrious cast mates. Caitrione Balfe as his mother absorbs the burdens of parenthood, sometimes strict but determined to raise her children well while Jamie Dornan is a loving father caught between political expectation and the right path for his family. Judi Dench and Ciaran Hinds are superb as paternal grandparents, very much in love after five decades together but with a spiky repartee that is adorable.
Being able to cast your own pseudo relatives must be a strange and wonderful challenge, but together they feel like a family and throughout the film’s 97-minute running time their happiness and heartbreak is delightfully comic and utterly absorbing, all without sentimentality. Haris Zambarloukos’ cinematography is stunning, giving the film a crisp modern feel that is made for cinema projection and filling it with visual texture and depth. Belfast is truly the must-see of the Festival.
Belfast is screening at the London Film Festival.