As with Alfonso Cuarón’s brilliant Roma, Belfast serves as a conduit for writer-director Kenneth Branagh to explore his own childhood. Both films feature the fading, fragile innocence of youth, juxtaposed with the terrible socio-political upheaval swirling around. At the same time, Branagh infuses his work with a deeply personal passion and aching nostalgia that elevate it into something unique. Sensitive and graceful, Belfast brims with wry humor that often feels tinged with bittersweetness. Undoubtedly, Branagh cried complicated tears as he molded this screenplay.
That script begins in the modern day, and in vibrant color. Van Morrison, himself a Belfast native, bellows from the speakers as we journey through the beautiful city. This goes on for a beat or two and….poof! We’re somewhere in Branagh’s distant memory, and everything goes to stark black and white. It’s now 1969, and the story zeroes in on one little neighborhood. The kids hoot and holler in the street; everybody knows everybody else’s business. Buddy (Jude Hill) is a nine-year-old boy who’s lived nothing but this insulated little ecosystem. He devours classic Westerns and crushes hard on a girl in class. He’s a smidge on the gifted side, but Buddy’s an otherwise ordinary boy.
One day, the outside world crashes hard into Buddy’s neighborhood. A gang of Protestant ruffians riot through the streets, looting and screaming along the way. They make it clear: Catholics must clear out, immediately. Though Buddy’s family is Protestant, this event has a terrible effect on them. Pa (Jamie Dornan) is a journeyman who desperately wants to relocate his family far away from The Troubles. Meanwhile, Ma (Caitríona Balfe) argues that this goldfish bowl community is all they’ve ever known. Elsewhere, the family could mocked for their thick Irish accents and unusual customs. At the same time, Buddy and his older brother Will (Lewis McAskie) feel the tug to get involved with low-grade criminal activity and the growing political anarchy. Pa’s parents (Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench) try to steer the children by their own quirky moral compass.
While the comparisons with Roma are unavoidable, this is an entirely different film. Yes, Belfast also delivers scenes of busted storefronts and radicals breaking down barricades. At the same time, Branagh paints this quasi-biopic with a decidedly softer palate of emotions. Gentle humor flows through the story, even during some of the more melancholic moments. Those expecting the sheer spiritual devastation of Roma will be surprised that Branagh often keeps this drama on the bright side of the road.
On the subject of Van the Man, the film’s soundtrack leans heavily on Morrison’s work, essentially designating him as a tour guide for the Belfastian vibe. Classics like “(Jackie Wilson Said) I’m in Heaven When You Smile,” and “Carrickfergus,” stand proudly alongside a rollicking new track, “Down to Joy.” The Irish bard’s folk rock also supplies the film with an irresistible beat that helps distinguish it from Roma, and many other coming of age epics like it.
As for performances, Belfast’s shiniest star belongs to Hill, who infuses Buddy with the perfect mix of curiosity, stubbornness, and pure vulnerability. He drives the movie, and is the single biggest reason for its success. Dornan does fine work as the dad who struggles to find a balance between sensitive lug and absentee jerk. Balfe serves as his flummoxed soulmate, playing the bone-tired mother who can’t stitch her fraying family together fast enough. Hinds and Dench build a nice, vaguely raunchy chemistry with each other, and they give the film a welcome injection of humanity. But you probably already knew that.
In the end, Belfast is a beautiful, intimate piece of cinematic poetry that chronicles the home none of us can ever fully go back to when we become adults. It’s sad and heart-warming at the same time. Branagh’s journey back clearly drew from a deep well of emotions. You might find yourself crying complicated tears along with him.
97 min. PG-13. Currently Video on Demand.