BELFAST movie poster | ©2021 Focus Features

BELFAST movie poster | ©2021 Focus Features

Rating: PG-13
Stars: Caitriona Balfe, Judi Dench, Jamie Dornan, Ciarán Hinds, Jude Hill, Lewis McAskie
Writer: Kenneth Branagh
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Distributor: Focus Features
Release Date: November 12, 2021

Belfast has, tragically, been synonymous with violence in Northern Ireland for much of the twentieth century. BELFAST the movie incorporates that, but it’s also the story of a boy, his family and their home.

Director/writer Kenneth Branagh has based BELFAST on his own childhood. He achieves an appealing balance of nostalgia and verisimilitude in his depiction of a family, a neighborhood, and an era.

BELFAST opens with a color panorama of the city in the present, then transports us to black-and-white for most of its running time. It’s August 15, 1969. We are with nine-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill), who lives with teen brother Will (Lewis McAskie) and their Ma (Caitriona Balfe) and Pa (Jamie Dornan), in a working-class, mostly Protestant neighborhood. Will’s Granny (Judi Dench) and grandfather Pop (Ciaran Hinds) are nearby, and it’s one of those communities where everybody knows everybody else.

Initially, Buddy’s childhood is fairly idyllic. He pines after the prettiest and smartest girl in his class, gets bullied by his older female cousin, and is gobsmacked by the fire and brimstone of the Reverend at Church. Buddy also goes to the cinema and the theatre with his family, where what he sees is shown in color, the one gentle hint we get of the impact this has on the boy.

The few clouds on the horizon are that Pa works in England, which keeps him away for weeks at a time, and Pop has health problems. Then the Troubles begin. These are not instigated by the local Catholics, but rather by militant Protestant gangs who want the Catholics out. The gangs not only use violence, but insist that every adult and teen Protestant male in the area either join up bodily or contribute financially.

BELFAST movie poster | ©2021 Focus Features

BELFAST movie poster | ©2021 Focus Features

Pa is understandably horrified and furious, and begins thinking that maybe his family should move with him to his workplace. Ma is equally horrified and furious, but does not want to be intimidated out of her birthplace and her deep ties to everyone around her.

The tension between the couple is real, but so is the love. When the pair go out for an evening and dance together, Balfe especially conveys such joy that we’re actually moved by it (an emotional effect that too often backfires in movies).

Dornan projects understated rectitude and warmth. Dench makes a perfect working-class Irish granny, and Hinds has a deft light touch as Pop. Hill is wholly delightful as Buddy.

It helps that Van Morrison, the legendary Irish singer/songwriter, has not only contributed many of his iconic songs, but also composed the score for BELFAST. It increases our sense of the period, and enhances the power of the songs.

Branagh has made something beautiful, completely specific and yet readily universal with BELFAST. The pull of security versus tradition, income versus desired experience, and even the issue of people beset by any form of gang violence has analogies all over the world. By not pushing this too hard, BELFAST lands as something that feels complete unto itself, yet with a resonance that lingers.

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