Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast, which he wrote and directed, is a sweet, sentimental treatment of a durable cinematic sub-genre: the childhood autobiography.
Branagh spent the first nine years of his life in Northern Ireland, and Belfast tells the story of his formative experiences. Born into a working class Protestant family, he lived in a predominantly Catholic neighborhood before his father, a handyman, decided to move the family to England to escape the Troubles (aka the Northern Ireland Conflict that began in the late 1960s).
Buddy (Jude Hill) is Branagh’s young alter ego, a plucky, freckled kid who lives on one of those anonymous city blocks where everybody seems to know each other. His placid day-to-day routine is suddenly interrupted by masked rioters tossing Molotov cocktails at Catholic homes. Between the increasingly frequent street violence and the girl in class who becomes the object of his affections, Buddy’s life is upended. The solaces of family, the movie theater, the stage, and the TV set piping in American pop culture, provide a refuge and inform his hard lessons in growing up.
Family dramas have consistently proved to be reliable crowd-pleasers, especially when set against the backdrop of some kind of national conflict. See for instance John Boorman’s Hope & Glory or Alfonso Cuaron’s more recent Roma. Belfast doesn’t distinguish itself from such antecedents so much as slip into its company by way of some familiar tropes: soft black-and-white photography and a series of Golden Oldies evoking the late 1960s, in this case almost exclusively-comprised of Belfast-born rocker Van Morrison tracks.
From the director’s chair, Branagh indulges in some lightly eccentric angles. Never a sure stylist, he sometimes lets the camera upstage the actors. But his comfort with ensembles is apparent in every interaction between its preadolescent star and every adult performer in the cast. The imperishable strength of the mother (Caitríona Mary Balfe of the Starz show Outlander) and the quiet toughness of the father (Jamie Dornan, formerly the sexy serial killer in The Fall) combine to form a picture of Irish strength and resilience.
Academy voters will likely agree that the best moments belong to Granny (Judi Dench) and Pop (Ciarán Hinds), a couple whose relationship could singlehandedly revive faith in the institution of marriage. Hinds, 68 but playing at least 10 years older, is especially fine, making ample use of his long, expressive face and saucer-like eyes.
One of the film’s most pleasing leitmotifs is the use of classic movies as markers of experience. This technique, used to perfection by Terence Davies in The Long Day Closes, also risks the ridiculous in what turns out to be the emotional highlight of the film: a reenactment of a moment from High Noon, replete with Tex Ritter’s famous “Do Not Forsake Me” ballad coming over the soundtrack. It’s a sucker punch right to the gut of any self-respecting father in the audience.
What Belfast amounts to isn’t quite a full-fledged self-portrait, nor an essential summary of an ethno-nationalist conflict that dragged on for decades, nor even a snapshot of a people whose history and culture extend back at least as far as the Vikings. What it finally comes down to is a simple story of a family whose peace and stability are threatened by forces outside their control, and whose survival depends on a love that transcends material circumstances. As the world continues to face its own Troubles, it’s a story that lands at an opportune moment.