Kenneth Branagh gets personal with Belfast, a semi-biographical film, which chronicles the life of a working-class Protestant family living in the titular city during ‘The Troubles’ of Northern Ireland in the late 1960s.

Shot in black-and-white, Belfast presents itself as a whimsical coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of Irish turmoil, while also providing something of a parallel to the current social divide that has the world by the throat.

The film opens with a colourful panoramic shot of modern day Belfast as the opening credits play. Zeroing in on one particular neighbourhood street, the picture turns to black and white to represent a dreary point in history where kids played gleefully on the streets, blissfully unaware of the hardships their parents faced.

We are introduced to nine-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill) as he plays with other kids from his street. Armed with a homemade sword and a garbage bin lid as a shield, he is a typical boy full of imagination with an active disposition – a sweet kid whose innocence is curbed with the arrival of violent Catholic protesters tearing the neighbourhood apart, determined to rid the area of Protestants.

Buddy’s father (Jamie Dornan) works in London and is away from home for weeks at a time, and when Belfast falls into a state of unrest, he is faced with the onerous contemplation of upheaving his family and leaving Ireland entirely. His wife (Caitriona Balfe) can’t imagine life anywhere else, and together they must navigate unthinkable options for the sake of their children.

Much like Neil Jordan’s powerful 1997 film The Butcher Boy, Belfast depicts the Irish Troubles through the eyes of a child and, in turn, highlights the preposterousness of ethnic-nationalism and sectarian conflict. The neighbourhood dynamic of the film shifts from peaceful and unified to hostile and divided within a matter of hours, and those who were close friends one day found themselves to be enemies the next.

It’s a sad and indicative exploration of humanity made all the more powerful by the filmmaker in charge. The history of Northern Ireland is far too complex to contextualise in a film review (and indeed this story), but by recreating memories from his own childhood, Branagh speaks his own truth, which is – by definition – irrefutable.

Jude Hill is a revelation as the central character whose innocence serves as a foundation for his confusion, uncertainty and fear. Always the scallywag, he questions everything in hope of understanding the chaos around him. He is coddled by two excellent supporting performances from Ciaran Hinds and Judi Dench as his doting grandparents, who protect him with optimistic distractions and reassurances. They are both wonderful, with Hinds delivering a particularly humorous and endearing turn.

Dornan and Balfe also hand over strong performances, both of which present starkly different personas from the characters audiences known them for best (Fifty Shades of Grey and Outlander, respectively). They play off each other well, providing juxtaposing views of achieving their mutual desire of a better life.

The film showcases a soundtrack comprised of mostly Van Morrison songs, a celebrated Belfastian artist whose music fits the mood of the film and helps set its tone. If you’re familiar with his work (and you should be) then you will have a better understanding of the film’s sentiment and its infectiousness.

Branagh has captured the 1960s streetscape of Belfast with an equal measure of nostalgia and grievance, and also with a sense of romanticism – he makes it perfectly clear that his heart never left the city. The merit of his choice to present the film in black and white can be debated and some may argue that it emphasises the bleakness of the time.

An interesting adage to his story are flecks of colour strewn throughout the picture in moments of levity and joy, and when all is said and done, it’s an indulgence that he need not answer for. Belfast is his story and it comes in between two much bigger films that he has directed, Artemis Fowl and Death on the Nile.

Amongst his diverse directorial efforts, it has become clear that it’s the smaller, more modest endeavours that serve Branagh best; Belfast is exceptional storytelling and packs one heck of a punch.

Read STACK‘s nterview with Kenneth Branagh and the cast

In cinemas: February 3, 2022
Starring: Caitriona Balfe, Jamie Dornan, Jude Hill
Directed by: Kenneth Branagh

Pre-order Belfast on DVD now at JB Hi-Fi.