While there is always violence in some part of the world at any given time, the 1960s seemed to have been one of the most intense decades in history. In 1963 a Buddhist monk named Thích Quảng Đức sat down in a busy street in Vietnam and burned himself to death in protest. Five years later, again in Vietnam, US troops murdered over three hundred civilians in what has become to be known as the My Lai Massacre, and on US soil, amongst the chaos of the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King, Jr. and President John F. Kennedy were assassinated.
Across the pond, Catholics were being persecuted by Protestants in Ireland. In what became known as "The Troubles", the riots in Belfast and elsewhere in Northern Ireland lasted for the next thirty years. Actor, writer, director Kenneth Branagh (Henry V) lived through those riots until his family moved to England when he was nine years old. Belfast, the semi-autobiographical movie about Branagh's family and neighbors during that tumultuous time, has won numerous awards on the film festival circuit. It opens tonight in theaters throughout the United States.
Buddy (newcomer Jude Hill) was your average little boy growing up in Ireland. He had a crush on his classmate, blonde hair, blue-eyed, Catherine (newcomer Olive Tennant), and simply wanted to play outside with his friends. Unfortunately, he lived in Belfast in 1969. For Buddy, it wasn't so bad. He was Protestant. However, for some of his neighbors and Catherine, it was a dangerous time to be Catholic. With resentment growing, Catholics were finding themselves in the middle of the violence as they were beaten, and their homes were burned down. Scary for anyone, it was downright terrifying for a young boy.
As an intensely personal story for Branagh, he does a wonderful job steering his cast in the direction he wants them to go emotionally. Additionally, his camera angles and use of lighting highlight his beloved city in the way only a native son possibly could. Though most of the film is supposed to be in black and white to reflect the era, the hue has a bluish tinge to it giving the overall look of the film an angelic feel. Branagh's dialogue teeters back and forth between the seriousness one would expect for the situation to the loving banter and laughter that only family can bring.
As it should be with this story, the focus is on Buddy and Hill, despite a lack of professional experience, rises to the challenge. He is endearing and emotional and delivers his lines like an actor well beyond nine years of age. Caitríona Balfe (Outlander) is captivating as Ma. She and Hill have some wonderful scenes together and neither actor overshadows the other. Dame Judi Dench (Shakespeare in Love) and Ciarán Hinds (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2) are the elders of the clan who bring age, wisdom, and some levity to the story. Jamie Dornan (Fifty Shades of Grey), is serviceable if unforgettable as Buddy's mostly absent father.
As a love letter to his hometown and its torrid past, Branagh does his best to highlight the beauty of Belfast in the sixties despite the ugliness penetrating the city. At a run time of an hour and forty minutes, the movie seems longer at times, especially in the second act which drags a little bit. It also seemed a little "sanitized" for a movie set to the backdrop of the 1969 riots in Ireland.
However, the riots aren't the focus of the movie. Buddy and his family are and from that standpoint, Branagh created a beautiful film that will most probably be nominated for more than one Oscar and BAFTA award.