If nothing else, Kenneth Branagh is a productive filmmaker. Of the 20-odd films he’s directed (many of which he’s also written) over the last few decades, some of them have even been good. With Belfast, a moving story of childhood, conflict and a family at a crossroads, he delivers not only his most personal film yet, but perhaps his best as well.
Set in the titular, tumultuous Northern Ireland city in the late 1960s, the film is an autobiographical chronicle of his family’s time just before they make the difficult decision to leave their home and resettle in England, far from the fighting and chaos of the conflict known as The Troubles. Told from the point of view of a young boy about as old as Branagh would’ve been at the time, about eight or nine, the film is presented mostly in black and white (only a few scenes are in color, and for very good reason), a choice that adds to the film’s nostalgia factor. The boy at the center of the film is Buddy (a winning newcomer, Jude Hill), and he’s surrounded by a close and loving (and star-studded) family: Ma (Caitriona Balfe), Pa (Jamie Dornan), brother Will (Lewis McAskie), a grandpa he calls Pop (Ciarán Hinds) and Granny (Judi Dench). Pa works hard to provide for his family while Ma keeps the small home that’s one of many in a row on a cobblestone street in the heart of the city. Most of the religious and political conflict consuming Belfast is kept at bay from Buddy and his friends, until it quite literally comes to his doorstep and the street erupts in battle.
As Will and Buddy navigate life behind the makeshift barricade, coming and going before curfew and entertaining themselves pretend fighting, Ma and Pa are all too aware of the world crumbling around them and the decisions they may be forced to make in order to keep their family safe. Balfe and Dornan are a powerful couple, not in status or stature but in the ferocity of their commitment to each other and their family; the film is at its most electrifying when these two are on screen together, particularly in one fleetingly joyful moment. As an homage to his parents, at least, Belfast is about the best gift any son can muster. Paired with an achingly perfect soundtrack featuring classics by Van Morrison and Branagh’s carefully crafted narrative that gives equal space to all three generations experiencing this historical moment in their shared history, the film becomes something of a time capsule, beautifully marrying the undeniable tragedy of the time with the unmatched bond of family.
Belfast is now in theaters.
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