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‘Belfast’: Kenneth Branagh makes a masterful memoir of his tumultuous Irish boyhood

Set during the Protestant-Catholic conflicts of the late 1960s, the film is both specific and universal, grand and intimate, sweetly romantic and shockingly violent.

Buddy (Jude Hill) is playing when a Protestant mob forces him to flee in “Belfast.”
Focus Features

We are at the movies.

A mom and a dad and their two young boys, and the boys’ grandmother, gaze up in wonder at the silver screen and marvel at the wonders of the fantasy musical “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” — and when the titular car driven by Dick Van Dyke careens off a cliff and soars through the skies, the family pitches forward in their seats, awestruck by this amazing feat, lost in the movie, forgetting for this moment about the Troubles lurking outside the theater.

This is just one of a myriad of slightly fantastical, almost dreamlike, perfectly rendered set pieces in Kenneth Branagh’s wondrous and beautiful and masterful “Belfast,” which is set in the Northern Ireland of the late 1960s and is inspired by Branagh’s own childhood. (We think of Branagh as the consummate British actor-filmmaker and that he is, but he was born in Belfast and lived there with his family until he was 9 years old, when they moved to England.) “Belfast” is a cinematic memoir on the order of John Boorman’s “Hope and Glory” and Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma,” with a tale both specific and universal, grand and intimate, sweetly romantic and shockingly violent. I found myself swept up in the story just as that extended family was immersed in the amazing (for its time) spectacle of the fantasy they were watching on the big screen.

Filmed in stunningly gorgeous tones of black and white (with a few exceptions, including color images of movies seen by the family), “Belfast” is set primarily on one block in a working-class neighborhood in Belfast in 1969 and is told through the eyes of 9-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill), whose carefree childhood is given a mighty jolt one day when a violent mob of anti-nationalist Protestants comes roaring around the corner to set fire to the Catholic houses in the neighborhood. Buddy had been out playing, pretending to be a great medieval warrior — but now he has to use his trash can lid shield as an actual shield as he scrambles his way home.

The Troubles of Northern Ireland have landed squarely on Buddy’s family’s doorstep. Writer-director Branagh ladles out the history lessons in digestible spoonfuls, as we see the conflict isn’t really about religion but about the Protestants wanting to remain part of the United Kingdom while the Catholics were in favor of joining a united Ireland. (Still, the religious differences are highlighted as well; Buddy — whose family is Protestant — thinks being Catholic would be a pretty good deal, as all you have to do is confess your sins and you get a clean slate!)

Even with conflicts escalating all around, Buddy’s family has more personal, pressing issues. Jamie Dornan plays Buddy’s Pa, a charming if not always responsible man who is away in England for great chunks of time, doing work as a skilled laborer. Meanwhile, Ma (Caitriona Balfe, bearing a striking resemblance to Cate Blanchett) is at home and tasked with caring for her sons, and also dealing with the devastating news that Pa’s sometimes dubious business dealings have plunged the family further into debt with Inland Revenue. When Pa is home, he’s spouting grand ideas about the family moving to Vancouver or Sydney, but Ma argues this is madness, as this neighborhood and this life is all she’s ever known.

Buddy seeks solace from the tension in his household by spending time with his grandparents (Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench), who are always ribbing one another and cracking wise but are obviously and eternally in love. (A scene in which Grandpa cajoles Grandma into a little dance in the living room is about as romantic as anything you’ll ever see.) “Belfast” even finds room for a romance in Buddy’s life, as he is hopelessly smitten with a classmate named Catherine (Olive Tennant) and studying hard to improve his test scores because seating arrangements are based on achievement, and he wants to move up so he can sit next to Catherine. (Not that Buddy is a total innocent; he gets involved in some mischief, including nicking some candy from a local store and getting caught up in the looting during one riot. Suffice to say Ma is a more powerful force to be reckoned with than any local thugs.)

Jamie Dornan (left) stars as Buddy’s father in “Belfast,” alongside Ciarán Hinds, Jude Hill and Judi Dench.
Focus Features

“Belfast” is unabashedly sentimental, from the plethora of Van Morrison songs on the soundtrack to the parallels drawn to Westerns such as “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” and (particularly) “High Noon.” Amidst all the turmoil, there’s a steady stream of pop culture moments, whether the family is seeing the aforementioned “Chitty Chitty ...” or “One Million Years B.C.,” or “Star Trek” is on the telly, or there’s a family trip to see a stage production of “A Christmas Carol.” Buddy and his Ma would love to stay in Belfast and ride out the storm, but it becomes increasingly apparent this family will most likely have to leave the only life they’ve ever known in order to survive. Cue the heartstrings and bring out the tissues.

“Belfast” is deserving of double-digit Oscar nominations, from the picture itself to Branagh’s directing and writing to the editing and cinematography to any number of the performances, with Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench near locks in the supporting categories. This is the best movie I’ve seen so far in 2021.