In 1969, Protestants and Catholics were at one another's throats in the streets of Belfast, Northern Ireland. Bombs ripped through urban neighborhoods, people were beaten, and an atmosphere of fear and rage prevailed.
Despite the turmoil, normal life never entirely disappeared. Kids played on their blocks, and not every Belfast Protestant spewed hatred for Catholics who wanted Northern Ireland to sever ties with Great Britain.
Kenneth Branagh wrote and directed Belfast, a movie that captures a slice of life during the terrible times when Branagh was a kid. Branagh, who also wrote the screenplay, shows us Belfast through the eyes of nine-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill), a boy whose dad (Jamie Dornan) commutes to construction jobs in England. Buddy's mom (Caitriona Balfe) holds things together in Belfast, the city the family regards as home.
Grandma (Judi Dench) and Grandpa (Ciaran Hinds) are close at hand and Buddy movies easily between both households. His older brother (Lewis McAskie) isn't seen quite as much.
Branagh makes some interesting stylistic decisions, the most important being to film mostly in black-and-white, interrupting with color for scenes in which the family attends movies.
In the theater, a world of color opens for the family as they watch films such as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and One Million Years BC, not exactly high art but welcome escapes from daily tensions.
High Noon plays on TV, a moral drama that mirrors some of the struggles faced by Dornan's Pa.
Van Morrison, who hails from Northern Ireland, provides a score that fits the proceedings and, although the movie doesn't shrink from violence, it often adopts the dreamy tone of events seen through a filter of memory and longing.
Street violence juxtaposes with the tenderness of family life and Buddy’s youthful innocence. He has a crush on a fellow student, for example, presenting her with flowers, a touching gesture of unashamed love.
It's not surprising that Buddy has no idea how to react to the events around him. When rioters crash into a local supermarket, he grabs a box of detergent and takes it home to his mother.
As someone who regards Protestants and Catholics as equals, Dornan's Pa faces pressure from local toughs who want him to join a neighborhood gang that's taking up arms against Catholics. Pa knows that it won't be long before the violent Protestant partisans take revenge on him for refusing to fight.
He’s involved in a tug of war with his wife, who’s reluctant to leave the only home she has known.
The episodic nature of the movie wears a bit thin, but overall, Belfast paints a telling picture of a family forced to decide whether to endure devastating turmoil or pull up roots.
In a better world, they never would have had to make such a choice.