Many of us turned to examining our pasts in lockdown, in a desire to understand how we got to where we were, what we’d left behind and what truly mattered still. In March 2020, with theatres and cinemas closed, Kenneth Branagh began writing the script for this film about his life as a nine-year-old boy in Belfast, 50 years earlier. Without any distractions, and needing to do no research, he finished it in just eight weeks. By September that year, it was being shot, under stringent safety protocols, not in Belfast but in an exhibition centre near Farnborough.
The film is entirely Branagh’s own story, in a way nothing else in his prolific career has been – but he does not appear in it. A coda was shot of him returning as an adult to the street in Belfast where he grew up, accompanied by the cast who play his family, but it was cut from the final edit: it would surely have been both superfluous and disruptive of the film’s integrity.
Belfast opens with panning aerial shots of Belfast today, looking its best in bright colours, repeated at intervals throughout the film. Then we’re suddenly at street level, on 16 August 1969, filmed in gorgeous monochrome. It’s an idyllic street community, children playing, neighbours chatting, everybody knowing each other. Little Buddy (quite brilliantly played by 11-year-old newcomer Jude Hill) has been fighting dragons with a wooden sword and dustbin lid shield. And then, out of nowhere, comes an astonishingly violent riot, petrol bombs, stonings, a car exploding, smashing up this little paradise. Buddy’s Ma (Caitríona Balfe) uses that dustbin lid to get him to safety. The Troubles have begun, and Buddy’s world has shattered.
The film follows the family’s agonising decision to leave the Belfast they love (Branagh’s family moved to Reading when he was nine). Pa (Jamie Dornan) is working in England as a joiner, returning at weekends when he can, struggling to pay off a tax debt – but their life otherwise is a marvel of love and warmth. Buddy has not only his absurdly glamorous parents and an older brother and sister, but a great pair of grandparents at hand too: Pop (Ciarán Hinds) and Granny (Judi Dench, perfect), full of kindness and quips.
It’s ruthless, this film-making. Every scene, every word, is calculated for maximum effect, every button pushed hard. Branagh’s theatrical career has made him expert in holding and moving an audience – and, since this is a once-in-a-lifetime project, why not give it everything and embrace full sentimentality? So it’s all explicit, all fully staged. The dialogue is a series of perfected moments. Granny says she was a great one for the pictures when she was young, mentioning Lost Horizons. Did she ever go to Shangri-La, Buddy asks. “There were no roads to Shangri-La from our part of Belfast,” says Granny, significantly.
Buddy hears a hellfire Protestant preacher ranting about there being a fork in the road, one path leading to salvation, the other to eternal torment (“thanks very much, really good”, he responds politely), providing a recurrent image of the family’s dilemma.
Buddy’s understanding is shaped too by the movies and the theatre; he sees a performance of A Christmas Carol in the theatre and watches One Million Years BC and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in startling colour at the cinema. The Westerns High Noon and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance play on through the television: he interprets Belfast’s street battles as epic stand-offs.
Thumping Van Morrison anthems crown every emotional highlight (like an episode of Desert Island Discs): eight classics plus one new song. And the filming is ceaselessly expressive too, a lot of ground-up angles and pointed framings. Throughout there’s a play on barriers going up, from stairway bannisters to barbed wire, culminating in an amazing shot of Granny, bidding farewell from behind a frosted door window.
If this all seems intolerably over-egged, it can be recuperated as not just a child’s-eye view, but justified in its nostalgia as well, as Branagh’s memory now of the boy he once was. You can even defend casting a pair of such beauties for his own parents this way.
Belfast is directly in the line of Louis Malle’s Au Revoir, Les Enfants (which is one of Branagh’s favourite films), John Boorman’s Hope and Glory, and, more recently, Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma. Branagh has made it his own, though. And universal: “We remember childhood as the fabulous years of our lives, and nations remember their childhood as fabulous years” (Giacomo Leopardi). Having won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival, Belfast promises to score at the Oscars too, even if the Hollywood Reporter has feebly protested it needs subtitles.
This article appears in the 19 Jan 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the party