Making an autobiographical film can be tough work for any filmmaker. What lives in memories is often difficult to fully express on film, and many filmmakers try to remove themselves from that burden by telling a story inspired by their life, not an actual retelling of events.
Writer/director Kenneth Branagh appears to take that challenge head on with Belfast, a film about a family living in the title city in Northern Ireland in 1969 just as the riots that would become known as “The Troubles” started. A political conflict that could be viewed by outsiders as a religious one, the riots pitted Protestants against Catholics, with Protestants mostly wanting to stay in the United Kingdom, and Catholics wanting to unify with Ireland.
Those details, however, are only hinted at in this film. Instead, it centers on how the violence affects Buddy (Jude Hill), his brother Will (Lewis McAskie), his mother (Caitriona Balfe), father (Jamie Dornan), grandmother (Judi Dench), and grandfather (Ciarán Hinds). Living in a tight-knit neighborhood in Belfast, Buddy is alternately fascinated by and frightened of the unrest that surrounds them, finding distractions in school and a young crush.
A quick scan of Branagh’s bio reveals that, indeed, he lived in Belfast until the age of 9 when the riots started, so it’s clear that he’s telling his own story, or at least a version closer than most filmmakers attempt. It’s a film that’s both a nostalgic trip down memory lane for what life was like in his particular neighborhood, and a wistful retelling of a regrettable series of events that forced many people from their homes.
The film hinges on the closeness of the family, and Branagh and the actors do an extraordinary job of depicting that intimacy. The stress of the situation, not helped by the fact that Buddy’s father has to be away for work much of the time, can be felt deeply, but so too can their love for each other. The film also depicts the unique nature of the neighborhood well, with people often outside observing the activities of their neighbors.
The film is shot in black and white except for occasional bursts of color when Buddy is watching movies or plays. This is a particularly nice way of indicating the escape those productions provided for Branagh as a child amid the turmoil, and probably why Branagh went on to become involved in theater and movies himself.
Hill is an ideal kid to fill the central role, as not only is he really freaking cute, but he has a presence about him that makes it feel like he’s truly experiencing the events of the film. Balfe, as anyone who watches Outlander knows, is a powerhouse, and she’s mesmerizing here. Dench and Hinds fill the old souls roles extremely well, giving the story the gravitas it needs.
Belfast is a brilliantly told story about a time that only those who were there know well. Branagh has managed to make the city of his youth come alive again, for better and for worse, and moviegoers are all the better for his efforts.
Belfast opens in select theaters on November 12.