Fellini had Amarcord. Woody Allen his Radio Days. While John Boorman offered Hope & Glory, Spike Lee took the world to Crooklyn, and Alfonso Cuarón gave us Roma. The (mostly male) list of cinema auteurs remembering or romanticizing their youth is now joined by Kenneth Branagh’s lovingly rendered Belfast (★★★☆☆), which bears resemblances to some of the aforementioned films yet fully inhabits its own specific time and place: the nostalgic memory banks of writer-director Branagh.
It’s a peaceful morning in the Northern Ireland capital, introduced first in vivid color, before the picture shifts in a blink to crisp black-and-white. From present-day serenity, Branagh drops directly into an August ’69 riot raging full-tilt, seen from the terrified perspective of ten-year old Buddy (Jude Hill). His working-class neighborhood is at war, bricks and bats smashing into glass and flesh, and Buddy’s brave Ma (Caitríona Balfe) shields him from harm as their family rushes inside to hunker down together.
The frightening immediacy of the melee, amped by sharp editing and cinematography, registers a peak of dramatic tension that the film doesn’t achieve again, despite further breakouts of violence and unrest. Buddy’s Belfast — though frequently disrupted by clashes between Protestant loyalists and Catholic nationalists, as well as local thugs leaning on his hard-working Pa (Jamie Dornan) to put more skin in the fight — is still a boyish wonderland of unrequited crushes and family outings to the movies.
Guided by sentiment and first-rate craft, Branagh’s Belfast aims less for parsing the ideology and divisiveness fueling the Troubles, in favor of depicting how a child’s innocence might survive such conflict. Nestled in the warmth of his loving family, Buddy gets to go on being a kid, even while tanks and soldiers roll through the streets. Fortunately for him and older brother Will (Lewis McAskie), their Protestant parents do their best to keep the likes of agitator Billy Clanton (a fiery Colin Morgan) at bay, and still make time for occasionally cutting a rug to one of the Van Morrison tunes on the soundtrack.
All striving parents should be so lucky to be remembered as supermodels of the proletariat like the Ma and Pa embodied by Balfe and Dornan, who both look gorgeous in monochrome, exuding decency and backbone. Dame Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds add another generation of salt-of-the-earth humor and wisdom to the household, as Granny and Pop. Their nuanced rapport resonates with lived-in affection, captured in a lovely shot that finds Buddy chatting outside with Pop, while Granny, seated inside by the window, listens in, amused.
Branagh and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos — Branagh’s collaborator on films from Sleuth and Thor, to the upcoming Death on the Nile — fill every inch of the frame with the details of family life, at home, at school, and at church. The movie makes mordant comedy of a minister who preaches himself into a pious, sweaty fervor, and relays a sweet fondness for moviegoing itself, showing Buddy’s eyes aglow with awe at the sight of Raquel Welch in One Million Years B.C. Yet, as conflict escalates on the family’s block, and Pa ponders their escape from potential civil war to a new life abroad, the sentiment, detail, and story don’t cohere into more than wistful episodes, some funny like the preacher, others marked by pain or loss.
The politics remains opaque, and the hostility between Pa and Billy Clanton somewhat vague, though it’s quite prominent in the narrative. Buddy’s world and Ma and Pa’s troubles, to say nothing of the nation’s Troubles, exist on separate planes, leaving the whole evocative trip no greater than the sum of its parts, nor even as impactful as its blistering opening on neighbors and countrymen waged in battle.
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