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Storyline (warning: spoilers)
Belfast is unquestionably Kenneth Branagh’s most personal film to date, but it’s also sure to have universal resonance. It depicts a violent, tumultuous time in Northern Ireland, but it does so through the innocent, exuberant eyes of a nine-year-old boy. And it’s shot in gentle black-and-white, with sporadic bursts of glorious colour.
In recalling his youthful days in an insular neighbourhood in the titular city, Branagh has made a film that’s both intimate and ambitious. That’s quite a balancing act the writer/director attempts to pull off, and for the most part, he succeeds. It’s hard not to be charmed by this love letter to a pivotal place and time in his childhood, and to the people who helped shape him into the singular cultural force he’d become. And yet, because we’re witnessing the events of the summer of 1969 from the perspective of a sweet child named Buddy, played by the irrepressibly winsome Jude Hill, there can be an oversimplification of the upheaval at work, as well as an emotional distancing in the way the film is shot. We see and hear things the way Buddy does: in snippets and whispers, through open windows and cracked doors, down narrow hallways and across the cramped living room, where Star Trek always seems to be on the TV.
When a Protestant mob charges down his block as he’s playing make-believe in the middle of the street, trying to root out the neighbouring Catholic families, the trash can lid he’d been using as a toy shield suddenly becomes a vital piece of protection against flying rocks. This is the constant push-pull that serves as a through-line in Belfast. It’s a film that frequently feels at odds with itself, resulting in equal amounts of poignancy and frustration. Ultimately, though, the sincerity on display wins you over.
Within the steady hum of the threat Buddy and his family face is an impossible decision: Do they stay in this neighbourhood where they’ve lived their whole lives, where everyone knows everyone, or do they move somewhere safer and start over? The achingly romantic final shot signals their choice in a way that hits harder than any of the nostalgia that came before it.