Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast: A Tumultuous Childhood Nostalgia

alvin
9 min readDec 3, 2021
Jude Hill stars as “Buddy” in director Kenneth Branagh’s BELFAST, a Focus Features release. © Rob Youngson / Focus Features

We are the sum of our memories. As we create them, we build a narrative that becomes a part of our life story, as all the good and bad moments that have happened to us refine us. A person has a vivid impression of their history, what they remember from their childhood, and what they envision for their future. Nostalgia stems from these concepts. In the world of filmmaking, we define nostalgia as the longing for home — the place from which we came — and where we may feel we belong. In Kenneth Branagh’s new film, “Belfast,” he explores this theme semi-autobiographically, and we can totally see his affection for his hometown as he brings us back to the past and through his film captures the nostalgia of a place where he spent his childhood — where his heart is. From Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma to Lee Isaac Chung’s Minari, Belfast is, in fact, a fresh and exciting approach to this type of storytelling. By using its nostalgia, the movie gives us a peek into the past while showing how it relates to the story it tells. The film is a far cry from what we can expect from Branagh’s stature, as he has created a very personal, honest, and intimate film that is much more than just an entertainment piece.

(L to R) Caitriona Balfe as “Ma”, Jamie Dornan as “Pa”, Judi Dench as “Granny”, Jude Hill as “Buddy”, and Lewis McAskie as “Will” in director Kenneth Branagh’s BELFAST, a Focus Features release. © Rob Youngson / Focus Features

Throughout “Belfast,” we learn about a family, the people of Belfast, and the events that happened during the Troubles, a time of violence between Protestant and Catholic communities in Northern Ireland. Taking place in 1969, it follows a Protestant family as they realize that the neighborhood they lived in is in a state of upheaval. Streets are filled with riots and protests, and the family is contemplating whether they should stay or move out of the country as tensions in the communities continue to escalate. It is a tough decision to make, as they know they will leave the place they called home. What makes it even more difficult to decide is that the family has a very complicated relationship and issues. The most difficult of these issues comes from the father, Pa (Jamie Dornan), who always travel to London to work as a joiner, and the pressure he experiences from Billy Clanton (Colin Morgan), a local guy who demands payments from the local families in the community through thuggery. The mother, Ma (Caitriona Balfe), is the one who takes responsibility for the family since the father is away and takes care of their sons, Will (Lewis McAskie) and Buddy (Jude Hill). Their grandparents, Granny and Pop (Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds, respectively), also live in the house and often help. As the civil war continues, the family’s life becomes even more unbearable, and the situation becomes even further complicated. Each day, they try their best to ensure that the turmoil outside of their house won’t affect them and, at the same time, find solace and comfort when they are together. The story unfolds through Buddy’s perspective as he navigates the heyday of his youth in Belfast. First, we see him pretend-play with his friends in the streets. At school, he struggles and wins over his crush, the smartest student in class, a smart blonde girl who happens to be a Catholic. Next, we see his frisky troubles with Moira (Lara McDonnell) like their failed attempt to steal bars of chocolate from a candy shop, and ultimately, we see Buddy’s understanding of the real world he and his family live in.

In the movie, we see them battling on several fronts: conflicts within the family, conflicts within the community, conflicts of being parents, conflicts of being children themselves, and finally, conflicts of being human. There is a line in the film that I find important to mention:

“What do you want?”

Throughout the film, this question is asked many times, giving us a glimpse into the family’s longing amidst the chaos. Pop asked it, Buddy, twice, and Ma asked this question to Pa. Their answers have one thing in common: family. The family merely wants to be together. It is clear throughout the film as we witness their emotional states and struggles every day. Although they want to be and stay together, they are aware that sometimes life is beyond their control, as they know that they will have to leave their house and hometown, both of which are filled with memories and love due to the pandemonium in their community. This uncertainty makes the film unique because Branagh captures the feeling of wanting to be a part of something and knowing there is no sense of security in the world because they know chaos surrounds them. It also makes the film so emotional and special. The way Branagh captures emotions is so accurate that it would almost feel too real to witness. So, when we see the family struggle with their decisions and the way they are trying to cope with the situations that they are in, it is something that we can feel in our hearts and connect with.

(L to R) Judi Dench as “Granny”, Jude Hill as “Buddy” and Ciarán Hinds as “Pop” in director Kenneth Branagh’s BELFAST, a Focus Features release. © Rob Youngson / Focus Features

As a film shot in black-and-white, it offers a nostalgic experience. Branagh has a wonderful eye for capturing the essence of the past, but he also uses this tool to show the world’s complexity. We see color in the film’s opening, ending, and scenes where Buddy and his family go to the movies or stage plays. The action on-screen or stage appears in color, and it gives the family an escape from their reality while also giving us the feeling of a simpler time. Color is used to show us the differences between the two worlds — black and white represents the past, and color for the future. Buddy and his family want to move into the latter, where they can live happily in comfort and safety, and experience the opportunities and freedoms that come with living in a future with no mayhem. Branagh shows both of these worlds through his characters and their relationships with each other. This is a very simple concept, but it is how we can connect with people who have lived through hardships and love. The nostalgia in the film is shown brilliantly through the small, framed moments that we see each one of them experience. Haris Zambarloukos’s cinematography, from the way he frames the shots to the long takes, and the high and low-angle shots, all show the complexity of the situations and what the characters are experiencing in their struggles every day. The camerawork in each scene shows not only the feelings of the characters but also the relationship between the characters and the world around them. There are a lot of instances where we see the camera move and follow the characters, the close-up shots of the characters’ faces, and the drone/aerial shots of the neighborhood. It makes the film feel more genuine and personal because they are both close and far to us at the same time, and that would let us see the full picture of the film.

The screenplay written by Branagh is a straightforward and an example of storytelling on a surface level. I get why Branagh went with this script — for it to be a simple, straightforward story and not overwhelm us with a lot of complicated ideas. But as much as I liked the simplicity, in my opinion, it could have been better if it was more compact. He could’ve explored the complex nature of the story. There are complex subtexts that the film missed out on because it wasn’t fully explored nor developed properly. For example, the script didn’t delve into the family history and their relationship with everyone in the neighborhood. Instead, the script is concerned with the characters’ relationships with each other and with the world. What is shown throughout the film is how the characters react to their surroundings and how they would confront them. That’s it. As a result, the characters are not well developed. You have each character with their own issues and problems, but you don’t really know what they are. The only thing you can tell about them is their emotions. They have no inner struggles or weaknesses. I think this lack of introversion is why the film is not as strong as it could have been. By not providing analysis and strong character development, Branagh is left with nothing to say about the characters and their feelings, which means there is nothing to work with regarding the message and the symbolism. Because of this, the film ended up being a simple film.

Director Kenneth Branagh (left) and actor Jude Hill (right) on the set of BELFAST, a Focus Features release. © Rob Youngson / Focus Features

The relationship between Buddy and his family is shown very simply where we see how they are dealing with each other. So, we don’t get to see how they are actually dealing with their emotions inside their thoughts. But that doesn’t mean there’s no emotion because we feel the emotions from the characters as they are dealing with their situations. There is no real depth to their lives, and that’s why the film seems too simple. Even though there is a balance between the humor and drama in the film, which makes it very interesting to watch, there’s a disproportion in the narratives told by Buddy and his family, making it hard to get into their heads. This inconsistency has actually weakened the film a little bit because we lose the connection with the characters. It would cause the audience to be less emotionally invested in the characters within the story. Nostalgia is a powerful emotion, and the way Branagh wrote it in the film is just amazing. It is portrayed in a romanticized manner but with a subtle realism and an authentic feel. This is why the film is so successful in spite of its flaws . It is engaging and it makes you laugh and cry throughout.

The cast ensemble of “Belfast” is absolutely brilliant! They all did an incredible job of showing what their characters feel through their performances. Newcomer Jude Hill is excellent in his role as Buddy, and he steals the show every time he is on screen. His charm is, beyond any doubt, one of the highlights of the film. Jamie Dornan gives a very convincing performance as Buddy’s father. He’s able to give the audience a clear and accurate image of how a father’s relationship with his son should be. His on-screen chemistry with Caitriona Balfe is also remarkable. They give a sense of realism in their interaction with each other that makes the audience believe in their relationship. Speaking of Balfe, she portrays a very realistic and honest character who gives her family a strong and sincere presence. She gets into her character’s mentality and understands how she feels about her family and the world. She gives a career-defining performance in her portrayal of her character in all respects. Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench gave us subtle yet powerful performances in their respective roles as Pop and Granny. While they bring a great sense of humanity to their characters, they also give a sense of wisdom and power in their portrayal. Colin Morgan also gave a solid performance as Billy Clanton as he bring conflict to the story. Everyone gave such incredible performances that it is nearly impossible to pick out just one or two standout performances from them all. Also, Jamie Dornan singing “Everlasting Love” in the film’s last few moments is a huge highlight for me. I really love the soundtrack of the film, especially the songs composed by Van Morrison, which helps to bring in the rich and emotional, nostalgic element to the entire movie.

Jamie Dornan (left) stars as “Pa” and Caitriona Balfe (right) stars as “Ma” in director Kenneth Branagh’s BELFAST, a Focus Features release. © Rob Youngson / Focus Features

“Belfast” is a wonderful, heartwarming, and reflective film, and it arguably gives us a new perspective of the past. Its nostalgic storytelling gives us a great way to look back at our memories and past as individuals, families, and communities. The film offers hope and the ability to get through the tough times in life and look at the bigger picture. Buddy, along with his family, is a very good representation of how we all must overcome our obstacles and have the courage to face our struggles and difficulties, even if we feel overwhelmed by them. The total experience of watching this film is more than just nostalgia, but also a way to create a new way of looking at the world, which will hopefully help us create a more beautiful and happy future for all of us. I would highly recommend it if you have it in your possession, as it is truly worth watching and worth your time.

Belfast is available to rent on VOD today!

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