The first trailer and a wave of good reactions from the festival circuit catapulted “Belfast” high up my most anticipated movies list. Kenneth Branagh’s semi-autobiographical coming-of-age tale is full of ingredients that tend to grab my attention. But that doesn’t automatically equal a good movie. Thankfully, Branagh’s stroll down memory lane is an absolute delight. His film is an earnest and intensely personal reflection on his childhood growing up in Belfast during the tumultuous 1960s. And while it plays out to the backdrop of violence and unrest, Branagh maintains a heartfelt focus on family and community.
Similar to Fellini’s “Amarcord” and Cuarón’s “Roma”, “Belfast” sees a filmmaker honoring the memories of his past. In Branagh’s case it’s not just an instance of recalling but also reckoning. He sets out to both pay tribute to and get a firmer grasp of those complex times in his life. And as he sorts through those memories you can sense the sorrow and fear that he and so many others experienced. But Branagh also conveys the intimacy of his family, an imperfect bunch bound by their hardy and unwavering love for each other.
“Belfast” opens with a musical prelude reminiscent of Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” where images of the city are put together in a way that captures its beauty and character. From there Branagh makes a stunning transition from color to monochrome; from present day to the past. An exquisite tracking shot takes us through a vibrant bustling Belfast neighborhood where everyone knows each other and the sounds of children playing fills the air. And just like that we find ourselves transported to the filmmaker’s youth.
The camera settles on a nine-year-old ball of energy named Buddy (newcomer Jude Hill) running through the street with a wooden sword and a trashcan lid for a shield. Carefree and happy, Buddy bounces towards home but suddenly freezes when something frightening catches his eye. At the end of the street protests erupt into violence between groups of Catholics and Protestants. Soon an explosion sends everyone in the street scurrying, the sound of children’s laughter now replaced by screams as chaos pours through the tight-knit neighborhood.
That jolt of an opening introduces us to the community where we’ll spend the rest of our time and also to the three-decade-long conflict known as The Troubles (I encourage anyone unfamiliar with the conflict to read up on it. Having even a basic knowledge of it is not only enlightening, but it adds more context to what happens in the film).
Buddy serves as our eyes and ears in his neighborhood as it tries to adjust to this new normal where everyone is uneasy and the threat of violence only seems to grow. The expressive young Hill makes for a wonderful guide, giving an incredible debut performance full of joy and heartbreak. Representing Branagh as a child, Buddy is full of childlike optimism that he struggles to hold onto the deeper we get into the movie. Hill embodies every facet of his character and there’s not a false note to be found in his performance.
We learn more about Buddy as we learn more about his working-class Irish family. His Pa (Jamie Dornan) is away for long stretches at a time, working construction jobs in England. The pained look on his face every time he has to leave let’s us know he hates to leave his family. But they need the money. That leaves Buddy with his Ma (played by a sublime Caitríona Balfe), a loving yet tough woman who manages the home the best she can. Buddy also has his salt of the earth grandparents, the easy-going Pop (Ciarán Hinds) and his straight-shooting Granny (Judi Dench). Hinds and Dench have a lovely chemistry and both bring warmth and emotional depth to every scene they’re in.
Things get harder for the family as extremists become more of a threat, aggressively pitting the once friendly Protestants and Catholics against each other. Soon Buddy’s family is faced with a decision too many were forced to make – stay in Belfast or leave the only place they have ever known. Through it all, a disciplined Branagh keeps things firmly in Buddy’s perspective. That may push away viewers looking for a harsher and more politically charged story. But Branagh speaks with such detailed clarity through his characters and his camera that we get all the information we need.
“Belfast” is filled with a number of terrific touches. I like how Branagh lets old television footage do most of the political heavy lifting. I love how cinema provides a much needed escape for Buddy and his family (“One Million Years B.C.”, “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang”, “High Noon”, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” all make appearances). Even Van Morrison slips in a song every now and then. But it all comes back to this family, doing what they can for each other and finding humor and joy even in the most difficult times. That idea of family burns at the heart of “Belfast”, an earnest, sincere and utterly irresistible movie that had me in its grip from start to finish. “Belfast” is now playing in theaters.