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Belfast review: Kennath Branagh's newest film is his most personal, and his best

A love letter to a time and a place in Northern Ireland, Belfast finds humour amid the Troubles

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Write what you know. It’s advice filmmaker Kenneth Branagh has taken to heart at the age of 60, with this look back at his boyhood days in Northern Ireland at the start of the Troubles. Belfast won the People’s Choice Award at the recent Toronto International Film Festival. It is Branagh’s 19th feature, his most personal and his best to date.

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It opens on a very specific moment in time. Aug. 15, 1969, a Friday. Buddy (Jude Hill) is playing outside his home in north Belfast, the street crowded with other kids, mothers standing outside their flats, men with their afternoon tea. Then, in the span of a 720-degree camera pan, idyll turns to violence as a mob comes around the corner, hurling abuse and projectiles. They’re attacking Catholic homes. Buddy is Protestant, but that doesn’t lesson his terror.

Branagh keeps the action close to his young alter ego, so we witness events (and attempts to make sense of them) through the eyes of a child. This gives the film much of its humour, as when Buddy’s slightly older and wayward cousin (Lara McDonnell) tries to explain that the correct answer to a stranger asking your religion is to double bluff and claim Protestantism. “But we are Protestant!” he cries. She nods sagely: “Exactly.”

Buddy’s parents, only ever known as Ma and Pa, are played by Caitriona Balfe and Jamie Dornan. He also has one set of grandparents, Granny and Pop, delightfully embodied by Judi Dench and the scandalously younger Ciaran Hinds. Yorkshire-born Dench is one of the few players to hail from across the Irish Sea, but Branagh seems to have given her a film-length audition as an Irishwoman in last year’s Artemis Fowl , in which she memorably growls the line “Top o’ the mornin’ ” as a threat.

Pa works as a joiner, often in England for weeks at a time. He remains resolutely outside and above the growing violence, despite attempts by the local Ulster Prostestant leader (Colin Morgan) to hit him up for “cash or commitment.” Ma too has no time for divisiveness. “They just kick with the left foot,” she says mildly of Catholics, a bit of slang that helps ground the film in a time and place. Another lovely period detail is the “wee Matchbox cars” Pa brings home from England, where they were made until 1985.

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Comparisons have been made between Belfast and Roma , Alfonso Cuarón’s 2018 film about growing up in Mexico City in the 1970s. Certainly the time frames are similar, and both are shot in black and white, though Branagh’s has a grittier, grainier look, backed by an all-Van-Morrison soundtrack; another Belfaster, to be sure.

Both are also love letters to the cinema. In Belfast , Buddy watches the flying car in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang , and Raquel Welch in One Million Years B.C. , mouth agape for entirely different reasons. (In a nice touch of magic, the movies are in colour even as the audience remains in black and white.) Back home on telly, High Noon and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance echo the morality and violence in the streets, while Star Trek suggests a better future.

Religion offers Buddy little solace, with the local minister delivering impassioned sermons about hellfire that leave the boy convinced there’s a right path and a wrong one, but uncertain which is which. In fact, he’s certain the Catholics have it better, because they can skip church whenever they like and make up for it in Confession. Pa has an idea to skip more than that, and starts talking about a new life in Australia, or maybe Canada.

Belfast is dedicated to the ones who left, the ones who stayed and the ones who were lost. (Seven people died on Aug. 15, 1969, and they were not the last.) Branagh has a tendency to romanticize the past – Buddy is too cute for words, and the director’s callbacks to the showdown of High Noon are a bit forced. But maybe that’s the way Buddy/Kenneth remembers it. This is a tribute to a city from a man who left it, even while his heart stayed and a bit of his soul was lost in the process.

Belfast opens Nov. 12 in cinemas.

4.5 stars out of 5

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