Belfast review – Branagh’s chocolate box vision of his childhood
Kenneth Branagh’s monochrome film of growing up in 60s Northern Ireland offers nostalgia but avoids getting to grips with the Troubles
Kenneth Branagh’s unabashedly feelgood memoir of growing up in Belfast as the Troubles erupted in the late 1960s suffers from a problem of perspective. Canted camera angles are rendered in flat, too-clean black and white; the film leans hard into its deliberately skewed child’s point of view. Nine-year-old Buddy (newcomer Jude Hill) hops, skips and jumps through rows of chocolate-box terrace houses to a bouncy soundtrack of Van Morrison. His family, which includes Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds’s cutesy Granny and Pop, find solace at the movies.
Buddy’s family are Protestants; their Catholic neighbours will soon be driven out of their homes by sectarian hostility. Jamie Dornan’s Pa is a labourer working in England who returns home to a growing pile of unpaid bills and violence brewing on the streets. The impressionable Buddy is encouraged by a schoolfriend to loot a supermarket; implausibly, Ma (Caitríona Balfe) marches him back into the thick of the violence to return a box of stolen washing powder.
The patina of nostalgia is used to avoid contextualising the Troubles, something the family feels separate from. A 30-year conflict that started with civil rights protests is boiled down to a vague problem of “bloody religion”. After all, Buddy’s crush is a Catholic. “She could be a vegetarian antichrist for all I care,” Pa reassures him.