Directed by: Kenneth Branagh
Written by: Kenneth Branagh
Starring: Jude Hill, Caitríona Balfe, Judi Dench, Jamie Dornan, Ciarán Hinds, Colin Morgan
Released: February 3, 2022
Grade: A-


Set in 1969, Kenneth Branagh’s new film begins with Protestant rioters attacking the homes of Catholic residents on a small street in Belfast, Northern Ireland.  It’s a strong opening, and having seen other powerful films about The Troubles such as In the Name of the Father, Bloody Sunday, Hunger, and ’71, I expected this to be an equally gritty, in-your-face drama showing the conflict in gruesome and precise detail.

I was wrong.  Branagh has done the old “bait and switch” trick.  We don’t see much more in the way of violence and the film transforms into a moving family drama about the place we identify as “home” and how it can vary over time in a changing world.  It’s a worthy theme that reminded me of Brooklyn, the stunning Oscar-nominated release from 2015 starring Saoirse Ronan – my favourite film of the last decade.

The family in the movie is fictional but the story is based on Branagh’s own upbringing.  He was born in 1960 as the son of working-class parents living in north Belfast and, at the age of 9, they had to make the tough decision whether to stay in an increasingly troubled city or to move overseas and start afresh.

The semi-autobiographical nature of the tale is also the reason why Branagh has told it from the perspective of 9-year-old Buddy, wonderfully played by newcomer Jude Hill.  There’s tension in the family and riots occurring outside his front door… but significant chunks of the movie are dedicated to the regular things that would concern a tween such as impressing his teacher at school, befriending a girl he likes, and stealing chocolate from a corner store.  You could describe it as a coming-of-age tale where The Troubles is merely the backdrop.

Belfast has a big heart and much of the credit belongs to the cast and their stellar performances.  Buddy spends time with his two grandparents, played by Judi Dench (Shakespeare in Love) and Ciarán Hinds (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), and it’s hard not to be moved by the interaction between them.  Granny and Pop shower their grandson with love and wisdom… while also trying to shield him from the world’s harshest realities.  Again, you don’t need to have lived in Northern Ireland in the 1970s to appreciate the situation and understand their actions.  Many will relate.

I’m not sold on everything about the movie.  Branagh has explained the predominant use of black-and-white gives it a “poetic quality” while the splashes of colour are like “explosions of the mind.”  I found it distracting more than value adding.  A big movie buff as a child, Branagh also includes several scenes where the family goes to the local picture theatre.  It’s overdone.  These moments feel more like Branagh is “name dropping” his favourite movies and TV shows as opposed to adding something meaningful to the narrative.

Winner of the lucrative People’s Choice Award at the 2021 Toronto Film Festival (the last three winners being Green Book, Jojo Rabbit and Nomadland), Belfast is a likeable crowd-pleaser that also provides a few plot points to reflect upon.

You can see/read my interview with 11-year-old star Jude Hill by clicking here.