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By Megan Bianco
When I saw the first trailer for Kenneth Branagh’s latest historical drama, Belfast, I instantly thought that it looked like “Roma (2018) for White people.”
Fortunately, outside of the time period, black-and-white cinematography and an effective riot sequence, there actually isn’t much in common between the two films. Loosely based on the filmmaker’s own childhood in the real city of Belfast, Northern Ireland, we are taken back to a moment in history that still deserves some exposure.
In late 1969, tensions are high in the modest family communities of Belfast, as it’s now reached the point where the neighborhood residents have to hide and lock up when Catholic and Protestant gangs take to the streets to riot and attack one another.
On one corner is where 8-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill), older brother Will (Lewis McAskie) and their parents—referred to simply as “Ma” (Caitríona Balfe) and “Pa” (Jamie Dornan)—reside. Pa is away a lot on weekdays for work, and he thinks it might be time to move everyone away from the violence. Ma is reluctant, as she’s lived in the same town her whole life, while Buddy also disagrees with leaving his school friends and local relatives.
I’ve read that a few people complain that the aesthetics of Branagh’s use of black and white, plus shades of color a handful of times throughout Belfast, are a bit dull and uninspired. I really didn’t mind the visuals myself, though, as I think it seemed to fit how simple and quaint the atmosphere is in Buddy’s hometown.
Branagh makes a decent attempt to not take sides or come across biased between the two Christian groups, and portrays both sets of gangs as violent and prejudiced against each other. Hill’s lead debut is filled with many wide-eyed reactions of shock or awe and not much else. But fortunately, he also manages to not fall into the trope of “obnoxious kid on screen.”
Belfast is a fresh and interesting take on the Troubles conflict in Northern Ireland, and it also doubles as a whimsical family drama.