Take this Belfast Quiz to find out which character you are. We update the quiz regularly and it’s the most accurate among the other quizzes.
“Belfast” is unquestionably Kenneth Branagh’s most personal film to date, but it will also have universal appeal. It depicts a violent, tumultuous period in Northern Ireland through the innocent, exuberant eyes of a nine-year-old boy. It’s also shot in soft black-and-white with sporadic bursts of vibrant color.
Branagh has made a film that is both intimate and ambitious, recalling his youth in an insular neighborhood of the titular city—his “Roma,” if you’ll forgive the inevitable comparison to Alfonso Cuarón’s recent masterpiece. The writer/director attempts a difficult balancing act, and for the most part, he succeeds. This love letter to a pivotal place and time in his childhood, as well as the people who helped shape him into the singular cultural force he’d become, is difficult not to be charmed by. Long before the dedication that plays before the end credits—”For the ones who stayed. For those who have left. And for all those who have died.”—Branagh wears his heart on his sleeve. Also, you must try to play this Belfast Quiz.
However, because we’re seeing the events of the summer of 1969 through the eyes of a sweet child named Buddy—stand-in, Branagh’s played by the irrepressibly winsome Jude Hill—there can be an oversimplification of the upheaval at work, as well as an emotional distancing in the film’s direction. We see and hear things in the same way Buddy does: in snippets and whispers, through open windows and cracked doors, down narrow corridors, and across the cramped living room, where “Star Trek” is always on TV. (The evocative black-and-white cinematography is by Haris Zambarloukos, who has shot several of Branagh’s films, including “Cinderella” and “Murder on the Orient Express.”) When a Protestant mob charge down his block while he’s pretending in the middle of the street, trying to find the neighboring Catholic families, the trash can lid he’d been using as a toy shield suddenly becomes a vital piece of protection against flying rocks.
The constant push-pull that serves as a through-line in “Belfast” is exemplified by this. It’s a film that frequently contradicts itself, resulting in equal parts poignancy and frustration. But, in the end, the sincerity on display wins you over. Otherwise, you’d have to be made of stone, especially during the simple, quiet moments when Buddy learns valuable life lessons to the strains of Van Morrison. (Yes, the words sound cheesy as I type them, but that kid is adorable.) It’s a nice touch that the girl Buddy has a crush on—a pig-tailed blonde who happens to be Catholic—is also the smartest student in class, and the way he woos her makes us laugh.
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Given Branagh’s long-standing reputation as an actor, it’s no surprise that he’s elicited warm, authentic performances from his top-tier, expertly chosen cast. Buddy sees his parents as movie-star glamorous—as larger-than-life as the actors in the films he longs to see every weekend at the local movie house—in this modest, working-class, Protestant setting. His mother (Caitriona Balfe) is elegant and feisty, while his father (Jamie Dornan) is charismatic and kindhearted, and they are only known to him (and us) as Ma and Pa. Like his grandparents, Judi Dench and Ciaran Hinds have effortless chemistry, mercilessly teasing each other from a place of deep love and affection and a lifetime of commitment—to each other, to this place. The scene in which they go from yelling at each other to dancing in the living room, Pop serenading Granny in her ear as he holds her close, is perhaps the film’s high point.
It’s a brief respite from the growing danger that surrounds them, disrupting the sense of community that has linked families on this block for decades, regardless of religious or political beliefs. Buddy is perplexed by The Troubles, as they’ve come to be known, and begs the adults he trusts to enlighten him.