As the film begins in an alleyway in 1969 Belfast, kids frolic in the streets, seniors ride bicycles, and mothers call out for their young. The atmosphere is ripe for a song as if Lin-Manuel Miranda was about to unleash another musical. But this is Kenneth Branagh’s new film, one based on his childhood memories, set during the turbulent era that saw Protestants and Catholics clash on the streets of Northern Ireland. There is song and dance, thanks to Jamie Dornan’s energetic “Everlasting Love” performance, nostalgic clips of Hollywood’s yesteryear, and a story overflowing with heart as we engage with a young family doing what they must to survive while making sacrifices along the way.

Newcomer Jude Hill plays 9-year-old Buddy, a vibrant outgoing young boy who we first meet in the streets of Belfast passing the time playing gladiators while carrying a wooden sword and a metal trashcan lid as a makeshift shield. It’s through his eyes that the story is told. For all purposes, Buddy is an average kid who loves the outdoors, going to the movies with his parents Pa (Jamie Dornan), Ma (Caitriona Balfe), and older brother Will (Lewis McAskie) — “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” provides a magical moment in the film that will have you singing along with Buddy and his family — and of course, he loves television shows including “Star Trek” which makes an appearance on the big screen as does vixen Raquel Welch in “One Million Years B.C.” Seeing all these clips of classic films and television shows in a theatre, amps up the film’s sentimental component.

Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench play Buddy’s grandparents, the veteran actors are the highlight of Branagh’s autobiographical film, who like most grandparents provide Buddy with brief respites from the anxiety at home as Ma and Pa come to grips with the fact the neighborhood is changing as The Troubles were just beginning. In one pivotal scene, violence erupts on the streets as Protestants march down the block calling out the Catholic families while Molotov cocktails are thrown, automobiles explode, and there at the center of all the pandemonium is little Buddy frozen in the line of fire, with a horrifying look on his face. Props to Hill whose performance is remarkably natural. Dialogue could never do justice to the scene that relies on a closeup of Hill to express the horror of the moment. Branagh takes full advantage of his actor’s faces to convey the emotional impact of a scene as when he zooms in on Dench in the final act, her weathered face and soulful eyes will haunt you long after viewing the film.

The conflict between the two religious factions, dived over the future status of Northern Ireland, provides the backdrop for Branagh’s story but its focus remains on this wonderful young family. The joyous moments in “Belfast” outweigh the tumultuous ones making this a wonderful film that the entire family can view together. Plus, it could spark conversions about religion and war, bonus!

Dornan, in a career-high, delivers a solid performance as the father who wants to get his family out of harm’s way before the tension in the area escalates. Also weighing heavily on Pa’s mind is the fact that he’s out of the country most of the time, working construction in England for better pay. Should violence arise, he won’t be home to protect his family. This makes Ma the film’s VIP which gives Balfe the chance to shine and that she does. In one scene Ma declares “We’ll fight this together” as Pa listens intently. Her determination to stay rooted in Northern Ireland is a force to be reckoned with but Pa knows it’s in their best interest to leave the country especially after he’s threatened by his Protestant acquaintances who warn him, “You wouldn’t want to be the odd man out in this street.” Buddy and his family are Protestant, yet they have no ill will towards their Catholic neighbors a point that Pa stresses to his family. Love one another.

There are typical coming-of-age moments in “Belfast” like Buddy’s crush on classmate Catherine (Olive Tennant), peer pressure by older cousin Moira (Lara McDonnell) that leads to a lapse in good judgment, and wonderful scenes with Ciarán Hinds as the family patriarch dispensing often hilarious advice to his young grandson. Hinds constantly steals the spotlight.

Small splashes of color appear throughout “Belfast”, yet most of the film is in black and white. Shot by cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos, the photography is so vivid and rich that it becomes visually striking. Without the distraction of color, the focus on the characters intensifies which is why it’s so easy to embrace films released prior to the groundbreaking Technicolor marvel “The Wizard of Oz” regarded as the most influential color film in cinema, if not the first.

Van Morrison rocks the soundtrack beginning with the opening song “Down to Joy” while Charlotte Walter’s swank costumes bring back the fashion of the era using the film’s various shades of grey for contrast providing that touch of zing.

“Belfast” is not the first film based on a director’s childhood. Federico Fellini’s “Amarcord” and John Boorman’s “Hope and Glory” come to mind, among many others, but it’s Alfonso Cuarón’s semi-autobiographical “Roma” that Branagh invokes a sense of kinship with as he tells a story 50 years in the making. Movies don’t get better than this.

(4 stars)

Now showing in theaters

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Joe Friar

Member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Latino Entertainment Journalists Association (LEJA), the Houston Film Critics Society, and a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic.

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