Love him or hate him, Kenneth Branagh is inextricably associated with the works of William Shakespeare, due to his obsessive love of the Bard and his work, whether he’s performing or directing. He’s made film adaptations of five of Shakespeare’s plays, most notably his star-studded version of Hamlet from 1996. But even in his more commercial fare, he tries to bring that gravitas and swagger to the work, be it in an intentionally over-the-top role like Gilderoy Lockhart or Andrei Sator, or in a more method role, like in My Week with Marilyn, where he played Laurence Olivier, further cementing his place in his own modern Globe.
With his latest film, Belfast, it’s on display again, but in a more subtle way. Loosely based on his own childhood, Branagh keeps his focus on a more observational character, a la Horatio from Hamlet or Antonio, the titular Merchant of Venice. By doing this, he defies convention in a way that more often than not damages a film such as this, but through careful characterization and expert staging — not to mention astonishingly great performances — Branagh has crafted what is by far his greatest film to date, and an easy contender for the best film of the year.
Set in 1969, the story centers on Buddy, a nine-year-old primary school student played by newcomer Jude Hill. Based on Branagh himself — and living at Branagh’s childhood address — Buddy lives a fairly normal life in a working class neighborhood. He attends school and church, hangs out with his cousin (Lara McDonnell) and brother (Lewis McAskie), and has a crush on a girl in his class named Catherine (Olive Tennant, daughter of David, granddaughter of Peter Davison, so I’m sure she’ll grow up to be a Doctor). All the important people in his life form a tightknit group, and everybody knows everybody else, which makes it all the more hilarious when he tries to pull pranks and steal candies from a nearby shop. He’s not fooling anyone.
Then “The Troubles” begin. A watershed moment in Ireland’s history, the almost quaintly-named “Troubles” was a 30-year conflict in Northern Ireland between Catholics and Protestants, with any number of political interests in mind, where thousands of military and civilians were killed and wounded. The powder keg erupts on Buddy’s street as he walks home from playing with his friends, wooden toy sword and trash can lid shield in hand, turning a childish fantasy of war to a guerilla reality within seconds. In mere hours barricades are set up and police and military checkpoints are instituted, as Buddy’s mixed neighborhood becomes a target for street violence.
As his world descends into chaos, Buddy can only muddle through as best he can, focusing on his schoolwork. His class has a weekly ranking system where quiz results alter the seat assignments, with the brightest students sitting at the front of the room. That’s where Catherine is, so Buddy hunkers down and studies harder than he ever has before just for the chance to sit next to her and get noticed. In the meantime, he gets sage advice from his grandparents, played with joyful wit by Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds, the latter giving what should be a nominated performance. He also has a fondness for movies and TV, culminating with the family going to the cinema to see Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Dench nearly having a heart attack at the sight of a flying car.
Mirroring the conflict in the outside world is a major test of his family’s strength as a unit, with a defining moment in his parents’ marriage. Buddy’s mother (Caitriona Balfe of Outlander) runs the home, cares for her parents, and keeps her boys in line. His father (Jamie Dornan, finally shedding the stench of the Fifty Shades series) works in London and travels back and forth, giving every pound he earns for the family to pay off back taxes and debt, but leaving little time to be a present dad and husband. What spare time he does have at home he’s on the defensive, as the local militias demand he either support their terrorism financially, or join in the physical fighting.
As such, he wants to get his family out of Belfast as soon as can be managed, for their own safety. His company in London even offers to relocate them and set them up with temporary housing. But Buddy’s mother wants none of that. She doesn’t want to uproot herself from the only home she’s ever known, and she doesn’t want to be seen as some sort of charity case, her boys being judged in a new city because of where they’re from and what they’ve escaped. Instead, she wants her husband to come home permanently, protect the family, and work locally.
A lot of this drama and comedy comes at something of a remove, which would normally sink a movie from a narrative standpoint. The major events aren’t relegated to the background, but Buddy, as the lead character, does not take an active role in the proceedings. He’s too busy pretending to join gangs or watching Star Trek. He’s very much a passive observer, right down to several scenes where he sits innocently on the staircase and just watches his parents argue.
But the reason it works here is because of the age of the character. Buddy is only nine, the same age Branagh was when the Troubles started. As such, he’s processing all of this information the way a child that age would. His parents take steps to shield him from the worst of it, and his grandparents actively engage him on more mundane matters like puzzles and math, or how to approach Catherine to let her know he likes her. That’s the sort of stuff a child that young should be worrying about, not whether a neighborhood tough (Colin Morgan) can intimidate his father into joining in the civil unrest. Even the core difference of the conflict — religion — only boils down to him as whether or not you’re required to go to church every Sunday, which he understands as Catholics having to and Protestants like him getting an option to stay home.
So much of the film’s presentation is filtered through Buddy’s limited worldview. Apart from bookending montages of Belfast as it exists now and media clips, the entire film is shot in a beautifully-rendered black-and-white, showing not only the rigidness of the violence itself, but the simplicity with which Buddy lives his young life, blissfully unaware of any nuance to the larger issues. All he cares about is if he leaves Belfast, he wants his grandparents to come with, a completely reasonable want from someone so young. Many of the scenes are framed relative to his height, forcing us to take everything in from his perspective, and showing how hard it is for someone like him to be figuratively and literally on the same level as his peers. His immediate family members (save Will) don’t even have names, because a nine-year-old wouldn’t refer to his parents that way. Instead they’re listed in the credits as “Ma,” “Pa,” “Granny,” and “Pop.”
Music plays a very strong role in ensuring the success of this creative conceit as well. The only time Buddy’s seen guns before this was in western movies, so the idea of anyone other than a lawman carrying a weapon is a foreign concept to him, and the whole thing is brilliantly illustrated by including the theme song from High Noon in certain spots (as well as a few scenes from the movie). Most of the soundtrack is provided by Van Morrison, who also wrote the score and an original song for the film, because as a proud son of Belfast himself, this was likely the music that Buddy (and Branagh by extension) would have been singing and dancing to at the time. For older kids and adults, it would be their cathartic release after surviving another day in an urban war zone. For someone as innocent as buddy, it would just be another joy in his normal existence. And in what is easily one of the greatest scenes of 2021 cinema, a truly gorgeous celebration of life is set to Dornan lip-syncing “Everlasting Love.”
And yet, despite what would seem like a muted role given his vantage point, young Jude Hill plays every scene to the absolute hilt. You never once think that this is an actor playing a little kid. You just see a little kid trying to process extreme changes in his world and reconciling complex ideas way faster than he ever should have to. His performance is absolutely perfect, aided by the fact that everyone around him gives it their all as well. This is another point where Branagh’s affinity for Shakespeare (and really, the stage in general) pays off, because he knows how to move actors around a scene, and how to get them to deliver the goods both in words and actions. A-list thespians are given a monumental task in making sure a child, a complete neophyte, has the space needed to give a completely naturalistic performance, and it makes their own roles shine all the brighter because of it. Branagh knows the value in fostering a cast as a singular unit, succeeding and failing as one, with each player improving themselves by lifting up the others. That’s exactly what happens here, and it’s breathtaking at times.
This is the exception that proves the rule. In almost any other case, you want your protagonist to be an active part of the main action, but here, the distance is not only warranted, but necessary. The Troubles were a transformative event, and many didn’t see the other side of it. To simply carry on was an act of bravery, and in Buddy, Kenneth Branagh has found the perfect avatar for that sentiment. Letting us see the harsh realities of the world through the eyes of someone barely able to register what was unfolding before him is a unique scenario where the passive voice is the proper choice. At several points, Buddy’s father tells him, “Be good. And if you can’t be good, be careful.” If nothing else, Branagh used an extreme amount of care in telling this deeply personal story, and we’re all the better for it.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What was the soundtrack to your formative years? How did you get your school crush’s attention? Let me know!