Buddy, played brilliantly by newcomer Jude Hill, is a precocious 10 years old more interested in the pretty Catholic girl who sits in the front row of school or pinching a sweet from the local grocer, than in the violence that is escalating around him. His life instead revolves around his adoring and faithful Ma (Caitriona Balfe), his often absent Pa (Jamie Dornan), a tradesman forced to work in England due to rampant unemployment, and his idiosyncratic grandparents, Granny (Judi Dench) & Pop (Ciarin Hinds). There is multi-generational love that can only be witnessed through the eyes of a child as the grandparents flirt with each other like schoolkids and his parents dance together in loving embrace after Pa serenades Ma with a karaoke rendition of Everlasting Love. It’s idyllic without being cloying; it’s romantic without being corny, showing familial love in the midst of burgeoning chaos. In the end, Belfast is about love, whether it’s first love, parental love or enduring love, and that’s a perfect message for a city that for so long has been identified with anything but!
Earlier this year I did an exhaustive project on films of The Troubles, watching and re-watching stories of lives torn apart, religious hatred and the aftermath of systemic violence perpetrated by both sides in Northern Ireland, as well as by the British government. Belfast was a central player in many of the films and it’s tragic that the city can be viewed, along with Beirut, Mogadishu and Sarajevo as modern urban centers of violence and terror. Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast, however, attempts to recast the city for what it was before The Troubles, a place interconnected between Protestants and Catholics, where children could play in the streets, neighbors watched out for one another and religion wasn’t a reason for destruction and hatred. Belfast is certainly one of the best films of 2022, but more importantly its simplicity is what should be valued and enjoyed, because in this case it’s the message that gives meaning.