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'A must see': Lord Alderdice reviews 'Belfast'

'Belfast' starring actors Judi Dench, Jude Hill and Ciarán Hinds | Alamy, Focus Features / Moviestore Collection

3 min read

Exploring the pain of the Irish émigré from a perspective that is neither traditional Irish nationalist nor Ulster unionist, Kenneth Branagh’s semi-autobiographical movie is authentic, moving and inspired

This is a moving and important film which Sir Kenneth Branagh, who wrote and directed it, called “semi-autobiographical”. It is more than 50 years since the return of the sectarian violence that was to wreck lives and communities for a generation. It impacted heavily on Branagh as a little boy growing up in working-class north Belfast.

His story is told through the eyes of nine-year old Buddy, brilliantly portrayed by Jude Hill, who may have a future as remarkable as Branagh’s own. In star performances, Jamie Dornan and Caitríona Balfe, are his Protestant parents, living out the emotional tensions of 1960s poverty, hugely exacerbated by the outbreak of sectarian violence. These socio-political pressures made protecting family life a daily challenge.

The decisions to use black and white film and contemporaneous newsreel were just some of the touches that gave authenticity and drew me back to that time. Ciarán Hinds was the perfect choice of grandfather, drawing on his own experience of growing up in north Belfast near the Branagh family home. Since his father was a GP serving both sides of the community, Hinds knew the deep divisions well. Jamie Dornan also grew up as the son of a Belfast doctor and brought this experience to his brilliant portrayal of the father.

Caitríona Balfe is an inspired choice of mother. You could not help feeling for this captivating young woman desperately trying to hold family life together in their “two-up two-down,” with money troubles and her husband working in England, yet still trying to bring a little fun into their lives. The matriarchal structure, the working-class Protestant religiosity, and the sadness of being left behind by old age and emigration were movingly conveyed by Dame Judi Dench, and if she did not quite get a consistent Northern Ireland accent, I suspect only the locals will really notice.

There is plenty of dark Belfast humour

The moody soundtrack was definitively local. East Belfast man, Van Morrison, contributed nine songs, including one written specially for the film, and even Ruby Murray, the Belfast-born singing sensation of the 1950s gets a spot.

There is plenty of dark Belfast humour and a degree of literary sophistication that may surprise the outsider. Belfast is a deeply divided city, and the outsider in this film can come from inside the city boundary. A Catholic from west Belfast or a middle-class citizen of south Belfast may remember it all differently. Branagh is exploring the pain of the Irish émigré from a perspective that is neither traditional Irish nationalist nor Ulster unionist.

Those who were not partisan for either communal identity could find themselves outsiders in a violent conflict and, as in this case, be forced to leave and become outsiders elsewhere. That has been a largely untold Troubles story and the importance of this film is that it brings it alive for insiders and outsiders, and for other conflicts too.

With marvellous cinematography, compassionate scripting, and sympathetic acting this is Northern Irish people and their friends conveying a bleak time with some positivity. Make sure you get to see it.

Lord Alderdice is Liberal Democrat peer and former Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly

Directed by: Sir Kenneth Branagh
Broadcaster: General cinema release

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