Belfast is based on Kenneth Branagh’s boyhood memories of living with his working class family in Northern Ireland at the start of the decades-long sectarian conflict that came to be known as The Troubles. The family consists of his Pa (played by Jamie Dornan of 50 Shades fame), his Ma (beautiful Irish actress Caitriona Balfe) his older brother Will and grandparents Pop (Ciaran Hinds) and Granny (Judi Dench). Buddy, the young Branagh, is played by a charming little blond fella called Jude Hill.
The family are Protestants but not bigots. There are Catholic families living in their terrace-house street but their easy co-habitation is about to end. The storytelling starts in August 1969 with a violent riot, the start of a campaign by Protestant extremists to ‘cleanse’ the neighbourhood of Catholics. Cars are torched, shops are looted, windows smashed. Barricades are set up and local men patrol the streets at night to keep the peace.
British troops are called in, but though they are unwelcome they aren’t the main threat to Buddy’s family. The most menacing character is Billy Clanton (Colin Morgan), a Protestant hothead who demands allegiance in the form of money and service. Pa is away a lot in England working as a fitter so he can’t be recruited as a foot soldier, but Billy wants his sons as messengers for the paramilitaries. Pa stands up to Billy, but we all know this won’t be the end of it. Pa wants to take the family to England for a new start, but Ma is reluctant to leave the only home she’s ever known.
This is all seen through the eyes of Buddy, a bright, good-natured, curious and intelligent kid. He’s full of questions about what’s going on and why, and with his parents being so busy with work, these are mostly answered by his grandparents, who also dispense plenty of wisdom on life and love.
Buddy has a crush on the pretty blonde girl who regularly tops the class. He’s a good student and his ambition is to equal or better her marks so he can sit next to her in the front row – a system of promotion and demotion that would probably have the teacher drummed out of the profession these days.
Life goes on and there’s plenty to worry about apart from The Troubles: Ma and Pa are heavily in debt for unpaid taxes. Pop, a former coal-miner, is coming down with some wasting disease. Buddy’s teenage cousin Moira (Lara McDonnell) is forever getting him into mischief. She tells him he should join a gang but doesn’t get past Buddy’s barrage of questions about who, what, which, where and why. She drags him along on a shoplifting expedition to nick chocolate bars, but he only manages to grab Turkish Delight, which no one likes, before they are recognized and busted. A policeman comes to the house. Ma schmoozes him with a nice cup of tea then gives Buddy the rounds of the kitchen.
Later, Moira pushes Buddy to join the mob looting a trashed supermarket – another failed criminal enterprise. Ma drags him out by the scruff of the neck then frogmarches him back to replace the big box of Omo he’s grabbed in his panic and is still clutching.
Buddy is naturally interested in the whole Catholic/Protestant thing. He asks Moira how you can tell one from the other among their schoolmates. She tells him that if they’re Sean or Patrick they’ll be Catholic, and if they’re Billy or William they’ll be Protestants. What about Thomas? Asks Buddy. Protestant, says Moira. But for once Buddy trumps her: his mate Thomas is definitely a Catholic. Moira isn’t as streetwise as she makes out.
Billy Clanton is aggressively protestant. At first I thought they were saying ‘Billy Clinton’, but that’s the Northern Irish accent for you. It’s a strong accent, often impenetrable to outsiders, but Branagh and his cast of excellent actors have obviously taken great care with the diction, and this was one of the few occasions where I misheard or missed what was being said.
Branagh portrays his characters with warmth and humanity, and there’s a lot of joy about in the midst of the ugly sectarian bigotry. Being Irish, they can all dance or sing or both. I loved the street party where they all groove away to the strains of Van Morrison. Apart from a pub session where Pa sings a karaoke pop song, the soundtrack music is all Van the Man, and it’s perfect for the setting and the story. (I’m a lifelong Van Morrison tragic. What a pity he’s gone all bonkers in his dotage.)
If I have one teeny criticism it’s that Branagh’s portrayal of the family dynamics is sometimes a bit melodramatic and in the case of the grandparents, a bit mawkish. He obviously remembers them very fondly, and no doubt they deserved that regard, but at times they come across as almost stage Irish in their quirky loveability, to be sure.
But that’s a minor quibble. Otherwise, it’s a gorgeous film and I bet Branagh wins the Best Director Oscar for it.