Like many directors before him, Kenneth Branagh mines his childhood to make a sweet film out of a difficult era. Branagh follows a path traveled by Franco Zeffirelli in Tea With Mussolini or John Boorman for Hope and Glory as a young boy navigates the troubled waters of battling sides. For his movie Belfast, Branagh features “The Troubles” of 1969, a time of civil unrest between Irish Catholics and protestants that included riots, bombings, and the attitude “if you’re not for me, then you’re against me.”
But Branagh’s family tried to avoid that approach and wanted a community that welcomed everyone. Their spirit of warmth and love permeates the film with huge doses of nostalgia, tempered by struggles ranging from financial woes to full-out violence. While no one in the family wanted hard times, everyone got through them with a sense of hope rather than resignation.
Branagh enhances this feel-good sensibility with a vibrant soundtrack dominated by Northern Ireland’s Van Morrison, plus other 1960s classics. Additionally, Branagh’s cast steps in with the nuance needed to balance life’s frustrating challenges with the resilient attitudes that keep people moving forward rather than giving up. Young Jude Hill plays Branagh’s alter ego Buddy, a wide-eyed 9-year-old unable to hide emotions. Long-time pros Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench exude the wisdom of experience as grandparents, while Jamie Dornan and Caitriona Balfe provide visual appeal and a couple of fun musical interludes as Buddy’s loving parents.
With thought and care going into every aspect of his story, Branagh sends viewers a well-crafted postcard of Belfast and his past.