Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast is a spellbinding masterpiece

Kenneth Branagh’s elegiac, autobiographical movie has a tremendous warmth to it, notwithstanding its grim subject matter, and although it focuses on a specific time in Branagh’s life, it touches on surprisingly universal themes. When, it asks, is it ever right to pack up and leave a place you probably shouldn’t be in the first place, yet which defines who you are?

For the most part the film avoids overt sentimentality, notwithstanding the Van Morrision soundtrack, and is beautifully shot in monochrome with a steely eye for the set piece. If it romanticises the past at all, it’s worth remembering this is a childhood seen through young Buddy’s eye, brilliantly played Jude Hill.  Buddy also keeps an eye on his parents, played to perfection by Jamie Dornan and Caitríona Balfe, but he is never quite sure what the audience watching the film sees only too clearly. There is superb support, too, from Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench, as the grandparents to which he turns when advice is needed.

When violence explodes on screen in the opening moments, its bracing stuff, but the film quickly moves on, as does life, from home to street to schoolroom to pub, and it’s often at its best when nothing much is happening. Cleverly revealing the fine line between protest, terrorism and straight forward criminality, the film makes it clear that whatever the political ramifications of the horrors all around him, Buddy is still more interested in his unrequited love for the girl he is forever trying to sit next to in class.