It is August 1969. The place is a predominantly Protestant area in Belfast, Northern Ireland’s capital. It is home to Catholic families, however, everyone can get along. Then there’s an eruption of what will become the 30-year-spasm of Irish sectarian violence called The Troubles—a struggle, roughly, between Protestant unionists and Catholic nationalists for the future of the divided country. Now, a band of marauders has suddenly appeared on the streets and is throwing stones and bombs at windows and smashing doors.
This movie is a look into the lives of Buddy (9-years-old, charming Jude Hill). Buddy was born in Belfast and saw everything firsthand.
The quiet achievement of Branagh’s film is its restraint—he doesn’t seem to be settling any long-simmering personal scores. Buddy and his family—mother (a splendid Caitriona Balfe, of Outlander), father (Jamie Dornan, now fully emerged from the 50 Shades of Grey pictures) and older brother (Lewis McAskie)—are the prism through which we watch the ugliness unfolding all around them. Branagh doesn’t play the terrorism here for excitement—we only see the bomb-throwers lurking about the town trying to recruit other men to their cause. One of the men tells Buddy, “Tell your dad I expect to hear form him soon,” or he will be hearing from him. Buddy’s grandfather (Ciarán Hinds, another Belfast native) counsels extreme caution. He said, “Next time, they’ll send someone serious.” You should go to the moon.
Buddy’s father is not called Pa in this movie. His mother, Ma is called Ma. He resists rebels’ pressures to become a member of them. They are actually pushing Buddy closer to the UK’s highest unemployment rate, Ireland. He is already being forced to work as a carpenter for several weeks in England. This is the closest place that he has any job opportunities. The idea of him leaving Belfast, the place he and his husband spent all their lives together is causing her grief. However, he has a growing desire to leave and, upon his return from work, brings along enticing travel brochures for Australia or Canada.
Branagh uses pungent details and vivid descriptions to portray the terror surrounding the Irish conflagration. An older gangster named Moira (Lara McDonnell) lures Buddy into the looting at a Catholic grocery store. He returns to his mother with a box of stolen laundry soap. His infuriated mom marches him back to the shop to get it on the shelf. However, a man stops her from returning to the store with the stolen soap. He tells her that “That’s certainly not our message.” Branagh also contrasts the havoc caused by the grownups in the story with the gentler concerns of childhood: Buddy is infatuated with a girl in his class at school—a little blonde angel named Catherine (Olive Tennant)—and when he announces his ambition to marry her someday, his grandfather offers sweet, if unrealistic, encouragement.
Branagh includes a couple of personal references. Buddy is a blossoming movie buff—we see him at a theatre with his grandmother (Judi Dench: a Brit, but half-Irish) watching the 1968 fantasy film Chitty Chitty Bang BangThis is why the movie’s otherwise black-and-white rendering briefly switches to Technicolor. We also see Buddy, who is a huge fan of American comic books. He’s absorbed into a copy. Thor (foreshadowing Branagh’s own directorial involvement in the first of Marvel’s ThorFilms
Branagh’s movie conveys an intimate feeling of place and time with a lot of old and new Van Morrison music (another Belfaster), without getting too sweaty about it. The main question is: Can Buddy and his family survive the chaos that surrounds them? Branagh, it seems, was able to get out.