A Look at the Cinematography, Music & Sound Design of the Film Belfast

Belfast film review



The film Belfast argues for the value of a childlike perspective amidst conflict
The clever use of writing, cinematography, sound design and music has infused the film with meaning
The same thoughtful approach to filmmaking can breathe life into your own work

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While watching Kenneth Branagh’s recent Oscar-nodded, autobiographical film Belfast, I became aware of an interesting mirroring between my own life and the life of Buddy, who plays a young Branagh. Buddy spent the first 9 years of his life in Belfast until the conflict in Northern Ireland, coupled with the changing circumstances of his father’s job, forced his family to move to England. I, on the other hand, spent the early years of my life in England before moving at the age of 9 to a relatively peaceful Belfast as a result of a change in my own father’s job. And while for Buddy, the move to England meant leaving family behind, for me, moving to Belfast meant joining the extended families of my parents, who both grew up in Northern Ireland.

Despite these contrasting experiences, there was still an underlying sense of familiarity in this story that I think boils down to more than just the city of Belfast. The film depicts a childlike perspective on a very serious, adult situation. It reminds us of that childlike wonder through which we all once saw the world and, in doing so, shines a light on the destructive nature of the conflict we adults now engage in.

Through the expert use of all the tools at a filmmaker’s disposal, Kenneth Branagh has created a complete and rich universe for Buddy, one which has little room for the trouble that threatens it.

belfast cinematography

In this article, I want to explore Buddy’s universe and the filmmaking techniques that went into its creation. Whether you’re interested in the philosophy of the film Belfast or more the creativity behind its production, there’s plenty to be learned from its writing, cinematography, sound design and music.


While I think it’s fantastic how much film production has come to Northern Ireland in recent years, I still have a pet peeve about the films that are actually set here. Any time a movie is announced that will take place in Belfast or nearby, the question I immediately ask is, “is it about The Troubles?” to which the answer is almost always, “yes.”

While the conflict here is ripe for storytelling, and making films about it can be valuable to the reconciliation process, I also believe there is much more to our culture to celebrate through film than just its history of violence. So when I first heard about Kenneth Branagh’s new film set in Belfast in 1969, I was disappointed, but not at all surprised, that my question was once again answered with a “yes, it’s about The Troubles.” However, after watching the film, I realized that my own question made a few too many assumptions about what a movie set around The Troubles must be like.

belfast the troubles

By FribblerCC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Despite Belfast fundamentally being a film about the impact of The Troubles on a typical Northern Irish family, it’s interesting that very little time is spent providing political context to that conflict. For example, no focus is placed on why there is tension between Catholics and Protestants, nor what actions between the two groups led to the escalation of violence that kickstarts the film.

I think the reason for this comes down to the perspective through which the story is written. This is the perspective of Buddy, a 9-year-old boy who (like most of us at the age of 9) has no understanding of politics or interest in it. Instead, his interests revolve around family, friendships, football and a girl named Catherine.

belfast review

Kenneth Branagh could have easily made this film with Buddy remaining the central character while still indulging the audience in political exposition. But, instead, he provides the viewer with as much information as Buddy himself would have had; a few snippets from news broadcasts and conclusions drawn from comically naive speculations with his friends.

So what does the writing achieve by limiting the audience’s understanding to that of Buddy’s? First and foremost, it forces us to interpret what we do see through the eyes of someone who doesn’t understand it – to see the conflict as a child sees it. Not as an us-vs.-them, socio-political showdown the way we adults might see it, but as a baffling (if still terrifying) obstacle in the way of the simple and pure joys of childhood. This is a gift the movie gives the viewer that would likely not be as effective without this simple yet well-executed writing decision.

belfast film childlike perspective


When you think of the cinematography of Belfast, likely the first thing that comes to mind is the black and white color palette. But to what extent does this enhance Branagh’s vision of the film? Both he and his cinematographer, Haris Zambarloukos, have discussed many factors that lured them towards embracing black and white. What seems to be a significant motivation is that it has the quality of removing distractions in order to enhance the focus on people and performance.

Branagh has explained that “color describes people, black and white allows you to feel people,” or as Zambarloukos put it in an interview with EW, “you don’t get as much information, but you gain something else.” So what is gained through black and white in Belfast is the focus on emotion and experience. I think this deepens the viewer’s ability to step inside Buddy’s shoes, or even those of the other passionate and richly developed characters in the film.

belfast film scene

What a black and white palette also allows for is a bold and meaningful use of color. Color is utilized in 2 different ways throughout the film. First, it’s used at the very beginning and very end of the film to show a thriving, modern-day Belfast, with the brightest and most vibrant parts of the city shown in all their glory. This allows the viewer to enter the film with hope, and for that hope to be fully realized at the end. It also communicates to the viewer (alongside the soundtrack, which will be discussed shortly) that what we are about to see should be fundamentally enjoyed, not received with melancholy, as could easily be the case given the narrative context.

the color in the film belfast

The second use of color penetrates the black, white and gray of Buddy’s world whenever he watches films, TV or theater. Knowing Kenneth Branagh’s vocation, this is no surprise. However, as much as being an ode to cinema, the inclusion of color in this way also captures that sense of childhood wonder that is at the heart of the film. You cannot easily force a sense of awe or wonder on a person, as these are not attributes of a physical thing but are products of interpretation. While we may not be able to interpret cinema in the magical way that a young Branagh did, seeing color pierce through black and white like this does at least give a glimpse at the feeling.

judi dench in belfast

Sound design

While often overlooked by audiences and underutilized by directors, sound design can be a powerful storytelling tool, and I think Belfast is a testament to that. And it’s not surprising that the film is nominated for an Academy Award for Best Sound. Apart from just providing another layer of immersive realism through the sounds of the world (helicopters, smashed glass, the footsteps of rioters etc.), the most notable use of sound design for me was in how Branagh captured the ethos of Buddy’s neighborhood.

belfast sound design

On several occasions throughout the film, especially in the first 20 minutes, we see Buddy as he walks down his street (habited peacefully by both Catholics and Protestants), and the sounds of affirmations, encouragements and banter between his neighbors saturate the audio of each scene. The faces of most of these voices are hidden, which I think helps this technique achieve what it intends to. It establishes Buddy’s general sense of community and safety on his street, even after the violence has begun and the barricades are up.

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For a film about Belfast, I suppose the use of a predominantly Van Morrison soundtrack seems like an obvious choice. But just as the movie’s writing, cinematography and sound design have been carefully crafted with the story in mind, so has the use of music. In much the same way that the sound design produces a nearly sensory understanding of Buddy’s experience of community and belonging in Belfast, Van Morrison does something similar.

belfast banner

Not only would this music be stuck in the heads of many of these characters at the time, but as the movie progresses, the sound of Van Morrison becomes infused into the story’s whole look and feel. These songs permeate Buddy’s peaceful existence in his neighborhood, as well as his experiences of threat and fear. They are present as his family begins to consider moving elsewhere, and they are there as Buddy rejects the idea, for the love of his home and community.

But what I found most interesting about the soundtrack is what happens when the decision to move to England is final and their new life is on the horizon. Here, Van Morrison takes a back seat and we experience arguably the most joyful scene of the film (and the year!), soundtracked by Love Affair’s Everlasting Love. This was an interesting change, not only because of its shift from the music that has infused the film so far, but also because of the theme of the song itself.

At this point, the move to England proves not to be a departure from all that is loved by Buddy. As the song describes, “when other loves are gone, ours will still be strong, we have our very own everlasting love.” Despite Belfast being the place Buddy calls home, moving to England (where his father has been traveling to work for long stretches of time), in fact, promises a greater sense of togetherness for the family as a whole. This is beautifully and exuberantly depicted as Ma and Pa find unity after a turbulent period in their marriage, dancing to the song (written by an English band).

belfast banner

Wrapping up

Through attentive writing, thoughtful cinematography, creative sound design and theme-driven music, the film Belfast has provided for viewers a meaningful experience of childlike wonder that overshadows hostility and division. And if you are a filmmaker, it gives a masterclass in using all the tools and techniques available to you to bring life to your work.

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About Tim McGlinchey

Tim McGlinchey is a lecturer in Northern Ireland's leading film school, where he specializes in teaching cinematography, editing and scriptwriting. His professional background is in commercial videography and narrative filmmaking, which he still engages in heavily by writing and directing short films and contributing stock footage to Artgrid.io.

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