'Belfast' review: Branagh's shining portrait of youth radiates warmth

Writer-director Kenneth Branagh turns to his own childhood for this depiction of childhood innocence against the conflict in his hometown.

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

It's a heavy subject — Northern Ireland in the 1960s, as the conflict between the Protestants and the Catholics rises, leaving the region in tumult — but "Belfast" is an inviting and even warm look at a family that is doing its best to hold together while their community fractures around them. 

Writer-director Kenneth Branagh, himself a native of Belfast who was born in 1960, tells his very personal story through the eyes of a young boy. When you're that young, you don't understand the politics of conflict. You just try to make the best of your childhood, and "Belfast" comes alive with wonder and heart against a backdrop of rising hostilities amongst the grown-ups, which came to be known as the Troubles. 

Caitriona Balfe and Jamie Dornan in "Belfast."

Jude Hill is Buddy, the 9-year-old at the center of the story, who is walking home to his family's modest working class flat in the city in August 1969 when riots break out around him, which Branagh frames in a full 360-degree swoop. Windows are broken, cars are turned over and set on fire. Is it war? Kind of: it's the escalation of the clash between the U.K. loyalist Protestants and the Catholics, who are looking to turn their back on the U.K. and join Ireland, which is dividing the community and drawing a line through the center of neighborhoods.  

Buddy's family are Protestants and their neighborhood is mostly Protestant, but as the temperature on the disagreement rises, safety is in short measure as other Protestants are shaking community members down for protection money. And as work becomes harder to come by as unemployment surges, Buddy's father, simply known as Pa (Jamie Dornan, scrubbed clean of the stains of the "50 Shades" trilogy), heads off to England for work. 

That leaves his mother, Ma (Caitríona Balfe, of "Ford v. Ferrari" and "Outlander"), to care for Buddy and his brother, Will (Lewis McAskie). Buddy's loving, understanding grandparents, Granny (Judi Dench) and Pop (Ciarán Hinds), are a part of the picture as well.

Jamie Dornan, Ciarán Hinds, Jude Hill and Judi Dench in "Belfast."

Aside from the barriers and checkpoints at the end of the street, it's business as usual for Buddy, who goes to school and develops a crush on his classmate. The teacher is organizing the classroom seating chart according to test performance, so he has to pull good grades to get as close to her as possible. 

At home, Westerns are on the TV set, and occasionally the family goes to the movies, where Branagh depicts the on-screen action of "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" in vibrant color against an otherwise black and white world, underscoring the movies' function, especially for Buddy, as an escape from the everyday. 

And though that world is chaotic, there are still rules and boundaries. When Buddy is convinced by his cousin to participate in a looting from a neighborhood shop, his mother marches him back to the scene of the crime, stepping through the missing store front window, and making him place the detergent he stole back on the shelf, even as rioters surround them. Right is still right and wrong is still wrong, even in a world where nothing else around them seems to make much sense. 

The mounting pressure to leave the city and start anew elsewhere — as far away as Canada or even Australia   — gives the story its narrative drive. "Belfast" doesn't leap into absurdist territory the way "Jojo Rabbit" played fast and loose with Nazi Germany in World War II, but it takes a similarly soft, childlike approach to difficult subject matter. There is grief and sadness but also love and celebration, and "Belfast" celebrates togetherness and the family unit, especially in a joyous scene where Dornan's character gets on stage and sings an ebullient rendition of Love Affair's "Everlasting Love" to his wife. (Elsewhere, Belfast native Van Morrison's music populates the lively soundtrack.)

"Belfast" is made with love and love is at the center of Branagh's story — love for family, love for community, love for country. It's a valentine to childhood and to the family unit that puts a human face and a beating heart on a story that can seem inaccessible to outsiders. But Branagh knows the story is bigger than politics, it's about people, and the lives that were affected then and how they were affected for generations to come. He takes the specific and makes it universal, telling a story that he personally knows well and using it to paint a vivid portrait of youth. And what a beautiful portrait it is.

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama

'Belfast'

GRADE: A-

Rated PG-13: for some violence and strong language

Running time: 97 minutes

In theaters