Buddy (Jude Hill) lives in a working-class community in '60s Belfast, watching 'Star Trek' on television, reading comics in the street, and playing with his friends. His father (Jamie Dornan) works in England and comes home sporadically, while his mother (Caitríona Balfe) and his grandparents (Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds) help to raise him. However, as tensions in the city begin to rise, Buddy begins to view his world in a different light...
Memory is such a tricky thing to try and expound upon in a movie, especially when it's as personal and biographical as something like 'Belfast'. What makes it so fascinating, and so articulate, is that it truly places the audience as close as it can behind the eyes of Buddy, and in that, we see a tight-knit community that's every bit as real and lucid as anything we know of ourselves.
When Jamie Dornan and Caitríona Balfe are together on screen, they look like movie stars because, well, you probably think that when you're that age. Jamie Dornan's father is framed in the shot by director Kenneth Branagh like a gunslinger as he stares down a militant who's trying to recruit him. The whispered, pleading calls from England and Belfast between Balfe and Dornan are only ever experienced through Buddy sitting at the top of the stairs and listening in. We get faint indications of the rising anger in the city, but it's only as Buddy is transfixed by 'Star Trek' and the adults are talking over the television set. That's how memory feels like - something as serious as your mother discussing immigration because of sectarian violence is locked away behind Captain Kirk talking about the phaser banks.
Buddy is utterly smitten with a young girl in his class and desperately tries to win her attention by swotting up in class, while the specifics of the rest of the school are ignored. He's chased up the road by his mother for stealing something out of a shop. He sees his grandfather sweet-talking his grandmother, or visiting him in hospital while his own father seeks counsel. There are so many heartbreaking, truly heartbreaking moments in 'Belfast' that it's hard to just pick one of them out. Yet, it's not maudlin and indeed, it actively asserts itself against sentimentality. As one woman puts it to Caitríona Balfe's character, all we Irish need is a few people to stay behind so those who left can get all weepy and emotional about the ones we left. That and decent food.
Right down the cast, from Jude Hill's wide-eyed Buddy to Jamie Dornan's stoically handsome father, from Judi Dench's earthen grandmother to Caitríona Balfe's glamourous mother, and everything in between, the performances are pitch-perfect. For a time of heightened drama, they're played with just the right amount of edge. Balfe and Dornan give career-best performances, with Branagh carefully underlining their performances with care and compassion at every point. Jude Hill lights up the screen with his unhindered smile, and Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds have enough charm and presence to carry the rest of the movie and then some.
Though we associate writer / director Kenneth Brannagh with high drama, Shakespeare, vaulted ceilings and long speeches, here in 'Belfast', there's none of that. It feels natural, even if it's in black and white. When Buddy is sent to church, for example, the Protestant reverend is so theatrical as to be comical and almost alien in his delivery. Yet, for all of his family, you could know every one of them. They feel alive in their dialogue. Their costumes, the tiny details in the production design, the turns of phrase, it all feels so tangible and authentic that it couldn't be anything but plucked from memory. It's impossible not to feel deeply moved by 'Belfast'. It's sentimental, yes, but not in such a way that it's hokey or unconvincing. Quite the opposite. 'Belfast' captures a spirit of innocence in a confusing and dangerous time. It plants itself in a place of deep hatred and division, but from it grows a bond of love, family, culture, and story that leads back to where it began.
In 'Belfast', Kenneth Branagh completes the circle and creates a wonderland of memories, joyful and tearful in equal measure.