Kenneth Branagh’s autobiographical coming-of-age drama Belfast opens with a title sequence that takes the viewer on a soaring aerial tour of that ancient Northern Irish port city as it looks today, all red-brick row houses and bright-blue river water. But as the credits come to an end, we are abruptly thrown into the past—August of 1969, to be exact—and into a much more intimate view of the city: a small residential street, seen in deep-focus black-and-white. Most of the rest of the film will stick to that location, with the action only rarely leaving the cozy cobblestoned block that, for 9-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill) and his older brother Will (Lewis McAskie), constitutes the only world they’ve ever known.
This shift between black-and-white and color happens a few more times during the film, always when Buddy and members of his family—Ma (Caitríona Balfe), Pa (Jamie Dornan), Granny (Judi Dench), or Pop (Ciarán Hinds)—find themselves in the audience of some sort of spectacle. When they go to the movies to see Chitty Chitty Bang Bang or attend a local production of A Christmas Carol, the action on the screen or stage appears in rich color, a vivid demonstration of how much film and theater mean to the little boy who will grow up to be one of Britain’s foremost actors and directors. Except for those few, magical moments, though, there’s no hint of Kenneth/Buddy’s future career as a thespian. He’s a regular kid, less interested in the arts than in Matchbox cars and play-fighting in the street with a trash can lid as a shield.
It isn’t long until the fighting turns real. In the first scene, Buddy’s trash can lid is pressed into service as an actual shield when a riot breaks out on the block, with Protestant thugs arriving to blow up a car and terrorize the street’s Catholic residents. Buddy and his family are Protestants, so they are spared direct harm. But the young men causing the trouble put pressure on Pa, a carpenter who regularly travels to England to find work, to join up with their anti-Catholic gang. The dual conflict of the movie to come will involve Pa and Ma’s attempt to keep their family safe and Buddy’s attempt to understand the religious and political violence swirling around him, as the capital of Northern Ireland enters the bloody period of its history now known as “the Troubles.”
Though it takes place against a backdrop of mounting civil unrest, Belfast focuses for the most part on smaller domestic dramas. Buddy’s parents struggle to pay their rent and back taxes and argue about whether to leave the city for a safer but lonelier life as emigrants somewhere in the British Commonwealth. Buddy gets a crush on a Catholic classmate and is pressured by an older girl to shoplift sweets. Meanwhile, his grandfather, a former coal miner played with tremendous warmth and humor by Hinds, serves as the family’s moral anchor and Buddy’s closest confidant, despite the old man’s declining health. In a lovely, improvised-feeling scene between Hinds and the equally magnificent Dench, Pop serenades Granny with a show tune—“How to Handle a Woman,” from Camelot—and pulls his protesting wife to her feet for a slow dance.
In many of its stylistic details, Belfast resembles another film that takes place in its writer-director’s fondly remembered if less than idyllic childhood: Alfonso Cuarón’s Mexico City–set Roma, also shot in black and white with long, intricately choreographed tracking shots. Belfast is not the tour de force that Roma was; its story beats are more familiar, its message about the primacy of family love a bit cornier, and the young hero’s view of his parents’ marriage considerably more idealized. (Should two working-class Irish parents really look this hot, or be this madly and exhibitionistically in love?) But good luck getting through this bighearted family drama without tearing up at least once, especially when Van Morrison’s familiar bluesy growl shows up on the soundtrack. Which is a lot—Morrison’s swelling ballads are so heavily used in the soundtrack that at times Belfast feels like an extended music video. This is a movie more intent on evoking outsize feelings—nostalgia, romantic longing, grief—than on exploring the political and historical themes its setting gestures toward. The Troubles serve as a backdrop that gives the story suspense and stakes, but if, like me, you go in not knowing much about this period of recent Irish history, you will leave scarcely more informed.
Still, Belfast gets the job done when it comes to producing waves of emotion in the viewer. The acting is consistently marvelous, including from the newcomer Jude Hill, only 9 at the time of filming. He appears on-screen, often alone and silent, for nearly every minute of the movie, and his watchful, expressive face recalls the juvenile protagonists of Truffaut films like The 400 Blows or Small Change. Without the right kid in the central role, a movie like this would never have worked, and to Branagh’s credit, he directs his junior alter ego with a light touch that lets the character of Buddy seem like a real, specific boy, rather than a symbol of lost childhood innocence as filtered through grown-up memory. A few late scenes pull too hard on the heartstrings, like a family party at which Dornan’s normally stoic character suddenly reveals himself to be a karaoke god as he takes the mic to belt a showstopping cover of “Everlasting Love.” But the very last shot, a close-up of Judi Dench’s bowed head seen through the blurred glass of a window, fully earns the tears I found myself shedding, almost despite myself, as the credits rolled.
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Belfast is already being called the front-runner in several major categories in the Oscar race, including Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Director. The fluid deep-focus cinematography by Haris Zambarloukos (who also shot Branagh’s recent Agatha Christie adaptation Murder on the Orient Express) also seems likely to garner some awards season recognition. It’s easy to imagine this film cleaning up at the Oscars. It’s a humanist crowd-pleaser with just enough historical heft to count as something more than a small family drama, and it’s also a deeply personal labor of love that, even if it never quite knocks your socks off, seems too sincere and too beautifully crafted to hate. I’m sure I will see better films than Belfast this year—in fact, now that the big end-of-year films are finally starting to roll out, I may see a better one this week. But if this tenderhearted dad movie does give Branagh his first Oscar (he’s been nominated five times in various categories over the past 32 years and never won), I would be hard-pressed to be so churlish as to begrudge it its success.