Until watching Kenneth Branagh’s wistfully autobiographical “Belfast,” I don’t think I realized that one of Britain’s greatest living actors — a talent who’s embodied everything from Henry V to Hercule Poirot, Kurt Wallander to Laurence Olivier — had been born in Northern Ireland. Maybe that’s because his family got out and moved to Reading, England, when he was nine years old, just as the Troubles were coming to a boil, an escape that spared him the accent and what could have been a premature end.
That strategy makes it easy to guess on which side of the nationalist divide the Branaghs found themselves (hint: the reunification-minded Catholics wanted to cut ties with England, while the loyalist Protestants clung tight to its bosom). Though the conflict has been depicted to the point of exhaustion on screen — typically as an escalating cycle of senseless brutality, complete with preachy “violence begets violence” sermon — “Belfast” avoids many of the clichés in favor of a sentimental look back through child’s eyes. The affectionate cine-memoir is rendered all the more effective on account of young discovery Jude Hill and its portrayal of a close-knit family (Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench and stay-put grandparents) crowded under one roof.
Even half a century later, Belfast still represents home to Branagh, if only in the heart. As fresh divisions erupt around the globe, and a pandemic lockdown brought comparisons to a time when his neighborhood barricaded itself against possible attack, the writer-director felt compelled to share his experience. Shot mostly in black and white and bookended by a pair of real-life street riots, the project will undoubtedly strike some as Branagh’s “Roma,” by way of John Boorman’s WW2-set “Hope and Glory.” (At one point, Dench describes drawing seams down the back of her legs to look like nylons, a detail straight out of that 1987 classic.)
His execution might not always be the most original, but Branagh is a gifted filmmaker with an instinct for connection. Years on stage has taught him how to move and manipulate an audience, and those instincts make this a far more accessible coming-of-age story than Cuarón’s — which, it should be said, was less about the kids than their indigenous nanny, serving as a late-life homage to an underappreciated second mother. Branagh goes for a more populist approach, relying on sentimentality and the sound of Van Morrison (eight familiar songs, one new) to trigger the desired emotions.
Where “Roma” built to the Corpus Christi Massacre, keeping the worst of the uprising out of frame, “Belfast” opens with a bang (following a brief, full-color tour of modern-day Belfast): Aug. 15, 1969, mere weeks after the moon landing and the day the Northern Ireland riots touched Branagh’s neighborhood. Transitioning neatly to black-and-white, the camera cranes above a contemporary wall mural to reveal the council estate where Buddy (Hill) and his family live in a rented row house. The 9-year-old rounds the corner to see a mob of anti-nationalist Protestants gathering at the end of his street. They’ve come to torch the Catholic houses (at the time, the two groups were still integrated in certain neighborhoods), and Buddy stands frozen in their way, holding a garbage pail lid as a makeshift shield.
It’s a stunning opening — easy to understand why such an incident would mark a child for life. Buddy finds it confusing, and so do we, as all this business of Catholics and Protestants (plus an early scene in which Buddy goes to church) makes it sound like the Troubles are about religion, not allegiance to the crown. Spewing fire and brimstone from the pulpit, Buddy’s Protestant minister commands his congregation to choose the right path — between good and evil, heaven and hell, he means, but the bewildered boy sees it as a metaphor for the choice facing his family.
His Pa (Jamie Dornan) already works remotely, traveling back and forth to England for a wage barely adequate to keep a roof over his family’s head. The tax man is constantly calling (if memory serves, that’s one of the reasons the United States declared its independence from England, though this family doesn’t see the burden as cause to secede), but Buddy doesn’t quite understand such grown-up things.
Ma (“Outlander” star Caitríona Balfe) does most of the parenting in her husband’s absence, and Branagh presents her as both resilient and uncommonly beautiful — an elegant Cate Blanchett type among the puffy, working-class faces of the neighborhood. What mother is not a goddess in her son’s eyes at that age? Buddy looks up to his elders with adoration, and it’s charming to watch his interactions with each of them, scripted and played in a slightly artificial way, where heavily accented characters wait their turn to talk, volleying the conversation back and forth as they might on stage.
As Pop, Hinds helps Buddy with his math homework and advises the boy on how to get a pretty Catholic classmate’s attention (Olive Tennant plays Catherine). Dench’s Granny eavesdrops on their conversations and gives the boy coins with which to buy sweeties, while neighborhood girl Moira (a memorable Lara McDonnell) talks him into robbing the local candy shop. There are consequences to pay for that, as Ma invites the policeman in to teach Buddy a lesson. The boy beams every time Pa tells him, “Be good, and if you can’t be good, be careful” — a line that assumes a different edge, now that acts of terrorism threaten innocent lives.
Through it all, there are movies: “High Noon,” “The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance,” “One Million Years B.C.” and “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” — the latter two shown in color, the joy of discovery illuminating the characters’ black-and-white faces. Seen on TV, the Westerns speak to what’s happening in the streets, such that “The Ballad of High Noon” plays out over a climactic standoff, when Buddy and Ma are held at gunpoint during a riot. Branagh also remembers seeing Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” performed on stage, and we’re led to understand that though his talent flowered far away, the seeds of his career were planted there in Belfast, amid such tough soil.