Even with his Gaelic name, it’s easy to forget that Kenneth Branagh is not English. He is from Northern Ireland, that Protestant northeastern corner of the Emerald Isle. Maybe people think you’re English when you’ve become as closely identified with Shakespeare as he has. His latest film, Belfast, isn’t Shakespeare. Rather, it’s his most personal work yet, based on his early life growing up during the very beginning of what the Irish call the Troubles. This autobiographical work might not be great art, but given my low tolerance for nostalgia and treacle, it must say something that I found this to be low-key and charming rather than overbearing.
His fictional stand-in is Buddy (Jude Hill), a boy who’s playing on the street in the summer of 1969, pretending to be a medieval knight and using a trash can lid as a shield. Then an angry mob of Protestants comes down the street and throws paving stones and firebombs at homes and businesses owned by Catholics, and Buddy’s mum (Caitríona Balfe) has to use the lid as a shield for real. The family is Protestant themselves, but his dad (Jamie Dornan), who spends most of his time in England as a woodworker, wants no part of the sectarian violence and seeks permanent jobs in Canada and Australia so he can move his kids out of harm’s way. Buddy dreams of being the next Danny Blanchflower, the legendary Northern Irish captain of Tottenham Hotspur, but the clue to his real direction in life comes when he watches movies at the local theater as well as a stage production of A Christmas Carol: These are among the only color sequences in this black-and-white film.
As a director of actors, Branagh’s track record is surprisingly and wildly mixed, but he’s on top of things here with a cast that is mostly from Norn Iron. The newcomer Hill is the real deal, lighting up the screen as the boy deconstructs a minister (Turlough Convery) who gives a spittle-spewing sermon about Catholics burning in hell or his older cousin (Freya Yates) when she claims you can tell a boy’s religion by his given name. There may be some idealization of his parents on Branagh’s part here, but Dornan puts in a credible performance as a father whose sly advice to his kid is, “Be good. And if you can’t be good, be careful.” Maybe best of all is Ciarán Hinds as a shady yet lovable grandfather who tells Buddy to write his numbers sloppily so that his maths teacher will give him higher marks out of confusion. This character actor has been good in a lot of stuff you’ve seen (Munich, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, TV’s Game of Thrones), and it’s gratifying to finally see him showcased like this.
Notwithstanding an over-the-top climactic confrontation between Buddy’s dad and the hooligan (Colin Morgan) who’s running a protection racket under the guise of fundraising for the Protestant cause, the film is better when it shows its kids being kids amid both the uprisings on the street and turmoil at home. Branagh’s sense of humor can be terribly broad sometimes, so it’s nice when Buddy’s cousin talks him into shoplifting candy from the local store and then is crestfallen with what he brings back: “No one likes Turkish delights!” That scene then has a rhyming one later when he takes a box of laundry detergent from a supermarket that’s being looted. Buddy’s furious Mum drags him back to the store, only to be confronted by that gun-toting gangster, who tells her she’d better steal that soap.
Perhaps it’s an accident of timing, but this movie comes out at a time when Brexit is threatening to restart the Troubles after more than 20 years of peace, since Northern Ireland may be re-absorbed into the Republic of Ireland. Still, Belfast’s politics play second fiddle to Branagh’s tribute to his family and the movies that made him. We see Buddy and his family go to the theater not to see classics but to see stuff like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and One Million Years B.C., and the film shares the boy’s starry-eyed wonder. (Meanwhile, Dad feels wonder of a different sort while watching Raquel Welch in that fur bikini.) It’s a key to understanding the director’s filmography: Branagh is a downmarket entertainer at heart who just happens to be a great Shakespearean actor as well. His coming-of-age story turns out to be a fine companion piece to Brooklyn, dedicated to the Irish people who left and carried their homelands to the far corners of the world.
Starring Jude Hill, Jamie Dornan, and Caitríona Balfe. Written and directed by Kenneth Branagh. Rated PG-13.