Director Kenneth Branagh taps his childhood for a moving glimpse at Belfast

click to enlarge Childhood "Troubles" 
come into focus in Belfast.
Childhood "Troubles" come into focus in Belfast.

The conflicts of the world — of our past as well as our present — when seen through the eyes of our children will always be filtered through a combination of profound curiosity and youthful innocence. It is that eventual loss of innocence, with all the pain that comes with it, that makes coming-of-age stories such stalwarts of cinema. It is all about growing up when the world is in chaos around you.

That is the approach that Belfast chooses to take. It's a heartfelt family drama set against the backdrop of sectarian violence in late 1960s Northern Ireland, and writer-director Kenneth Branagh takes us through a story closely aligned with his own childhood. He does so with a gentle hand that, while occasionally softening some of the more impactful elements, still arrives at something emotionally resonant.

The story centers on 9-year-old Buddy, played by Jude Hill, who's interested in all the things a boy his age would be. He is working to do well in school, in part to impress his crush, and enjoys seeing every movie imaginable. Shot in black and white, it feels almost quaint to see Buddy navigating his early life.

In an opening scene, this seemingly idyllic childhood is disrupted when violence breaks out as his community is attacked by those seeking to target his Catholic neighbors. The conflict known as "the Troubles" pitted Northern Ireland's predominantly Protestant unionists and loyalists, who wanted to remain in the United Kingdom, against predominantly Catholic nationalists and republicans who wanted a united Ireland free of the United Kingdom.

Branagh is less interested in delving much into the nitty gritty of the Troubles as he is about painting a portrait of a family trying to determine its own future. This is seen when Pa (Jamie Dornan) and Ma (Caitriona Balfe) hold frequent hushed conversations about whether to take Buddy and his brother, Will (Lewis McAskie), out of the country for a more stable future.

There is a central tension at play in Belfast with how Branagh chooses to filter history through this narrative lens. The film sands down much of the rougher edges and, especially early on, runs the risk of losing much in the process. Pain is a part of life, and this was indeed a painful time. If you take that away too much, you create the conditions to not feel as much as you should about the story.

Thankfully, Branagh rights the ship and delicately threads this tonal needle. The elements of history and the conflict do remain distant, told mostly through news broadcasts, though it still comes crashing in at key moments that remind you how tenuous life is. It is that central issue, about having to decide whether to leave everything you know and love behind, that draws you in and holds you.

Perhaps despite myself, I found my cynicism melting away. This is in part due to how many of the humorous breaks in the story are earned and genuine, with Hill giving an adorable performance with impeccable comedic timing. It recalls films like Minari or The Florida Project. While Belfast doesn't quite have the same emotional impact, the films are united by a commitment to capturing the outlook of children left to imagine a future for themselves.

Branagh's direction is tactile, focused on capturing the nooks and crannies of the home where the family discusses their future. Both Dornan and Balfe give strong performances in even the briefest of moments. However, it is the oldest generations of the family that command the attention of the film's most emotionally significant and weighty moments.

Judi Dench as Granny and Ciarán Hinds as Pop are both delightful, even as their joy masks a looming fear that they will be left behind if the rest of the family leaves. Dench in particular brings a quiet gravitas in moments of melancholy and reflection about her character's life. The conversations she has with Buddy excavate the story's deeper emotional underpinnings, with Dench speaking volumes with just a simple expression that leaves you unable to look away. It is by the power of these performances and the way Branagh invites us to love these characters as much as he does that Belfast finds its footing. ♦

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