Kenneth Branagh captures the joys and sorrows of an Irish lad during the 60s riots.
We meet little Buddy, who loves pretending to be the knight slaying the dragon with a wooden sword and a garbage can lid. And then we see him witnessing a violent riot in his neighborhood. His joy turns to sorrow, as things take a downward spiral for him. That’s the mood to open up director Kenneth Branagh’s latest film “Belfast,” which not only captures his childhood, but also happens to be the best film he’s directed since the 2015 “Cinderella” remake. He also guides newcomer Jude Hill phenomenally in the role of a happy boy, who has to be a part of history.
This particular history is known as “The Troubles,” which lasted in Northern Ireland from the 1960s to 1998. The story is set in Belfast, 1969 with a black and white scope that only offers colors when the characters see plays, movies, and even the introduction. It’s almost like the little girl with the red coat in “Schindler’s List,” but seeing the boy’s grandmother’s glasses show us the colorful reflection from the movie screen in a black and white image is mesmerizing.
Buddy’s family consists of his father (Jamie Dornan), who works in England; his mother (Caitriona Balfe), who argues with him about where their family will be given the circumstances; his older brother Will (Lewis McAskie); and his loving grandparents: the tough Granny (Judi Dench) and the comical Pop (Ciaran Hinds).
The father’s message to the boy is simple: “If you can’t be good, be careful.” And when the family may have to move to England, the boy tells his grandpa that his mother says people down there wouldn’t understand his Irish family. So, the old man responds: “If they can’t understand you, they aren’t listening.”
There’s a bad guy named Billy Clanton (Colin Morgan), who constantly threatens Buddy’s father, and there’s the boy’s troublemaking friend Moria (Lara McDonnell), who teaches him how to shoplift candy from the local shop. The former has a final showdown with the father in the style of an old western, while the girl has to eventually deal with the boy’s mother’s infuriated attitude. And both these sequences take place during the riots.
“Belfast” is a movie that reminded me of both “Jojo Rabbit” and “Roma.” To clarify, it has a young protagonist, who gives through the harsh life of the riots, while the black and white really sets the atmosphere of the movie. Branagh captures the mood and spirit of that notion exceptionally well, and as the writer, he gives it a personal touch that’s moving, hilarious, upbeat, emotional.
The cast is uniformly excellent. Hill makes an impressive debut when his character adapts to his world, and how he wishes things could be normal again. Balfe gives a fiery performance in the ways she yells at the boy and her husband, also well acted by Dornan. And both Hinds and Dench have their own fascinating, comical, and wise moments as the grandparents.
And speaking of upbeat, the movie features classic Van Morrison songs (“Bright Side of the Road,” “Days Like This,” etc.), as well as the famous “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” song, all of which help set the spirit of the movie, depending on the kind of mood it’s in. On two small footnotes, Morrison was born in Belfast, and my sister hated “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” for its flying car, and when the grandma finds out her family will be seeing the movie, she responds: “Whats that?!” Love that little reminder there.
“Belfast” is a return to form for Branagh, whose last three directed movies (“Murder on the Orient Express,” “All is True,” and “Artemis Fowl”) were less than amazing. He provides empathy for the characters and the troubles they have to deal with. It keeps you involved for all the right reasons I’ve mentioned, and it’s one of the year’s best films.
In Theaters This Friday