Kenneth Branagh weighs forms of escape against the gravity of home in a superb personal drama about a city it is hard to leave behind

Jamie Dornan and Jude Hill in Belfast

After a montage of Belfast in the present day, Kenneth Branagh’s camera slowly rises above a wall to reveal a street in 1969 – in black-and-white. Children are playing, kicking footballs and chatting good-naturedly with passing adults. Among them is nine-year-old Buddy – mock-fighting in the street, with his wooden toy sword and a bin-lid as a shield. In the distance, there is the rumble of noise – at first indistinct, but then a sense of dread hits. The camera wheels around him in a circle, young actor Jude Hill brilliantly conveying his understated curiosity and fear, as we spin around him again and again to reveal the armed crowd madding at the end of the road. Then his face again. Then the crowd. Round and round.

This is first of many striking choices from Branagh and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos that are simply breath-taking in their simple effectiveness. The movement feels centrifugal, the rollercoaster-like sensation of your stomach dropping evoking the raw terror of the violence that could unfold. As the Protestant rioters begin to attack the homes of Catholic residents, smashing windows, setting fires and throwing rocks, Buddy’s mother runs to grab him – using the bin-lid as a literal defence against the flying projectiles. As a symbolic loss of innocence, you can’t get much more startling – an object of pretend significance proving urgently useful. They desperately attempt to get inside – to escape from the violence – and hide under a table, praying it will end.

Jude Hill in Belfast

This is the first escape of many depicted – or considered – in Belfast, and it is perhaps the main theme of Kenneth Branagh’s extraordinarily affecting family drama. Faced with the rising violence, the family consider an escape to the commonwealth – Jamie Dornan’s Pa particularly drawn to Sydney or Vancouver. Meanwhile, Buddy escapes momentarily into entertainment and culture; Star Trek plays constantly on their television, while the stage and cinema hold him especially enraptured. Yet while the characters dream of various escapes, Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds’ exquisitely tender couple (Pa’s parents) embody a loyalty to their home, shared by all of the characters. Though eventually choosing to move to England, the family struggle to escape the gravity which Belfast exerts on them. Only after the death of Hinds’ character Pop (Buddy’s grandfather) are they finally untethered – feeling able to depart, though leaving Dench’s Granny sadly alone. She understands why they are going but feels she cannot go with them.

Branagh places pressure though on the very idea that leaving Belfast amounts to an escape. Despite fleeing for their safety (from job insecurity and debt, as well as violence and threats), there is a pervasive sense of guilt – particular from Buddy’s mother – over leaving. The film is grappling with Branagh’s own departure from Ireland, aged nine, and the complex mixture of homesickness, regret and even shame that stems from having left – a decision which led him into the life he has now.

That Buddy is analogous to Branagh is evident not only from the correspondence of dates (both born in 1960 and leaving Belfast in 1969), but in the film’s perspective. Though it does not stick entirely to Buddy’s view of events, his perspective is dominant. Caitríona Balfe and Jamie Dornan play, with supreme sensitivity, the parents known only as Ma and Pa. Many of their frantic discussions about impending financial ruin – as they attempt to get on top of back taxes – are overheard by us, shot through the gaps in the bannisters that a child peers through. Near the end, there is even a reference that feels like a delightfully meta joke. Buddy sits in the street, lost in the world of a comic book about Thor. Branagh would go on to direct Thor, released in 2011, as part of the Marvel Comic Universe franchise. In combination, these moments show that Belfast is a drama of memory – the specifics of The Troubles generally remaining vague, beyond the (to a child’s view) baffling binary division and propulsive sense of fear. Even the inter-scenes of helicopter-view looting and street violence, as well as patrolling guards, feel like dramatizations of news footage – watched back or remembered.

Held in tension at the heart of the film’s child-view of The Troubles is a fundamental moral uncertainty – coupled with Buddy’s strong desire to do good. After a rabble-rousing sermon – delivered in startlingly zoomed-in close-up – describing a ‘fork in the road’, Buddy’s fear and confusion take over. He is desperate to do the right thing, but utterly unsure what that is. He gets the two roads muddled, muttering to himself that he cannot remember which is which. Instead, Dornan’s closing monologue argues for tolerance with a concrete morality beneath it. Religion should be irrelevant, he suggests, but values such as being good to each other matter absolutely. A message like this would almost always tend towards the syrupy and trite, yet such is the power of Jude Hill’s performance that every scene he is in is carried along by a compelling, wide-eyed earnestness.

These are the same wide eyes that look on at culture with amazement. One of the film’s distinctive technical tricks is to shoot entirely in gentle blacks and whites – but with occasional glows of colours. Aside from the opening and closing montages, the only colour present is on cinema screens and stages – representing a Wizard of Oz-like escape into the land of fiction. One beautiful shot sees the colourful light reflected in Judi Dench’s glasses. Sometimes the film’s craft is simply beautiful; at others it is often very funny, with masterly shot composition. In an early scene, Judi Dench loiters in inky blackness in the corner of the frame, before intervening with an acerbic quip, pulling focus quite literally as we realise she has been there the whole time. Elsewhere, a more typical – yet stunningly effective – cut from a light-hearted family discussion about Catholic obsessions with guilt to a fear mongering Protestant minister acts as a hilarious demonstration of Protestant hypocrisy.

Judi Dench in Belfast

Moment by moment, Belfast is meticulously composed, and the care and attention lavished upon it is evident. Yet the overall edit of the film does feel a little choppy. There is not quite enough plot to sustain it completely – or at least some subplots are underdeveloped. There is plenty of situation, but less in the way of character-driven events, though this is perhaps a natural consequence of the film’s major focus on a child. While Belfast always holds the attention, the pace flags in some places – while other moments are a little rushed.

For instance, one of the film’s least elegant subplots features Lara McDonnell’s character Moira inducting Buddy into a gang – which ultimately, unsurprisingly, escalates from robbing a sweetshop to smashing up and looting a supermarket. The arc is not only predictable but a little too sudden; talk of a gang in one scene leads later to the theft, then to the raid. There is too little sense of one event leading to another. Perhaps we are meant to feel caught up in events, like Buddy is, yet the conclusion feels a little too disjointed.

The scenes of the raid are brilliantly shot, switching between an overhead perspective for scale and close-ups of violent destruction. In the midst of this, Buddy is utterly moving. Despite initial reticence, when Moira insists he takes something from the shop, he considers what will be useful for his family: washing powder. Even in the mess of the trashed shop, he takes something that will help make things clean. Yet when Ma discovers that Buddy has stolen washing powder, she physically drags them through the street violence, back into the shop, forcing them to return it. It makes such little material difference to the riot, yet Ma represents the respect for one’s home that runs through Belfast so powerfully. Vandalism is a transgression against one’s community that, for Branagh, is truly despicable. Implicitly, the film suggests that one of the most distressing parts of The Troubles was the way that people would, in staking a claim to a place as their home, end up destroying significant parts of it.

Jude Hill and Caitríona Balfe in Belfast

Yet Belfast remains, rebuilt in places – as we assured in the opening and closing moments. It opens with long shots of present-day Belfast, its purple evening skies shot in rich colour. It seems a little bit like a tourist-eye view of the city: the Harland and Woolf cranes, then the Titanic Museum, the murals, the precipitous flat peak of Cave Hill overlooking the city. Perhaps that is part of the film’s gesture – to set up then subvert the expectations of its viewers. The film’s title certainly makes claims of authoritativeness and authenticity, far beyond the remit of a potted history. Branagh returns to the cranes at the end, with the onscreen text overlayed: ‘For the ones who stayed. For the ones who left. And for all the ones who were lost.’ Such a dedication feels self-evident at this point.

Though overused, the phrase ‘a love letter to cinema’ seems entirely apt here. The cinema provided Branagh a colourful childhood escape from political tensions and the more universal challenges of growing up. Yet Belfast is also a love letter to his first home too: the titular city. Cinema seems to be a close second.

Ultimately, Belfast makes peace with leaving for England by suggesting that the tragedy of being wrenched from home is in the wrenching, not the leaving itself. You just need to say a proper goodbye – as Buddy manages to do to his classmate crush Catherine – and make a solemn promise to come back. It feels like the film is Branagh keeping that promise – a symbolic, long-planned return home. I found it far less rose-tinted than some reviewers did, brutal at times and with a palpable underlying sense of fear, yet it also insists not just on nostalgia but moments of pure delight. Though sometimes devastating, Belfast is also filled with utter joy.


Directed and Written by Kenneth Branagh, Starring Jude Hill, Caitríona Balfe, Jamie Dornan, Judi Dench, Ciaràn Hinds, Colin Morgan

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