“Belfast” is a slick bundle of memories. Glossy, a bit hazy around the edges, imbued with an extra dollop of whatever emotion happened to be going around at the time.
That isn’t just a metaphor. In the vein of Alfonso Cuarón’s “Roma,” “Belfast” is a black-and-white, semi-autobiographical foray into the youthful days of acclaimed actor and director Kenneth Branagh (“Hamlet”).
The hitch: it’s Belfast, Northern Ireland in the summer of 1969, the beginning of a time that would become known simply as the Troubles. In all too few words: Protestant and Catholic countrymen at violent odds with each other over sectarian divides with an ethnic and religious coloring.
Buddy (Jude Hill, in a fantastic feature debut) is our eyes and ears on the ground and Branagh’s filmic avatar. Sectarian conflict and religious foibles were the sorts of fanciful adult-y stuff that had little bearing on Buddy, who primarily concerns himself with how skillfully he can play at being a swordsman or whether his math scores would ever improve. He lives with his dutiful Ma (Caitríona Balfe, “Ford v. Ferrari”), his chronically-on-work-trips Pa (Jamie Dornan, “Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar”) and his wise-cracking Granny (Judi Dench, “Off the Rails”) and Pop (Ciarán Hinds, “The Man in the Hat”). A brother, a few friends on the street — life is bliss and a fantasy.
Until those vague and distant troubles puncture his childhood bliss in riotous fashion. A play-shield becomes a real shield, the make-believe theater of war an all too real setting of violent conflict.
Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t a massacre. His dad still goes to work, he still goes to school, Christmas still comes around as it always does. But the riots precipitate a number of worrisome changes for Buddy: barricades and checkpoints to contend with on his way to school, the looming threat of having to leave Belfast for refuge in some other distant reach of the British Commonwealth and the fact that a crush on his pigtailed classmate — she a Catholic and he a Protestant — may or may not doom him to Hell.
For better or worse, this infantilized vantage point is just about all to which the audience is relegated. The Troubles — while very present with tangible and confusing effects on Buddy’s life — remain vague and ill-understood. We receive information the way a skulking or ignored child might: through windows, around the corners of doors, across the hall. As a product of this choice, the film’s shot composition is strikingly aware of space to phenomenal effect. Branagh and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos (“Artemis Fowl”) carefully frame each shot to make complete use of background and foreground, as Buddy hides behind a corner or watches his parents tearfully discuss their future from afar. It’s the same reason we’re only acquainted with Dornan and Balfe as “Ma” and “Pa,” bereft of any name beyond Buddy’s purview. In this way, the film has incredible fidelity to its nature as adolescent memories, filtered through the decades of Branagh’s life.
On the flip side, certain things are punched up. While characters being ridiculously good-looking is usually chalked up to the fact that it’s a movie and actors are ridiculously good-looking, Ma and Pa being nigh-heroic movie star hotties is perhaps reframed as the tint of imperfect, augmented remembrance. The film certainly falls into moments of heightened realism, as when Dornan belts out karaoke like no overworked father has any right to or participates in a stand-off straight out of a Western (a detail which the film makes clear it is perfectly aware of).
To that end, Branagh takes endearing liberties with the film’s presentation. While the majority of the film’s runtime presents the city of Belfast and the misadventures of Buddy in an austere but grippingly beautiful monochrome (the movie loves its stormy sky and cityscape shots, each one an education in the surprising versatility of the color gray), the film occasionally slips back into the visible light spectrum. Reflecting Branagh’s eventual dedication to the filmic and dramatic arts, the worlds of screen and stage burst to vivid, polychromatic life as an awed Buddy can’t help but expand his eyes and loosen his jaw. Just the same, little details populate the set, auguring his future works — a Thor comic here, an Agatha Christie novel there, both properties Branagh has adapted in the past couple of decades.
Allusions to a filmmaker’s filmography are usually superfluous at best, if not obnoxious, but here they make sense. Such personal details speak to the fact that, despite being set during the Troubles and making hat-tips to ideas of tolerance and the vulnerabilities of religion, the film is less about Catholics vs. Protestants as it is about a family holding onto each other. While never over-dramatic and populated with sly quips and dry humor, the film is tender and relatable, making the lack of historical context a minor qualm. It’s about love, about home, about growing up in a changing world — and the world’s always changing, isn’t it?
Daily Arts Writer Jacob Lusk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.