Opening this weekend:
Belfast--One day in 1969, nine-year-old Buddy is walking home through the teeming, friendly streets of his working-class, religiously-mixed neighborhood in the title city. Just before he gets there, a furious mob suddenly rounds the corner and starts smashing windows of his Catholic neighbors. Before long the streets are full of tanks and soldiers and barricades.
This is the beginning of "The Troubles," the decades-long strife between Protestants and Catholics in Belfast. But for Buddy (Jude Hill), the more pressing issues are his crush on a beautiful classmate, or which movie he'll be taken to see, or keeping straight which road his fire-and-brimstone (Protestant) clergyman recommends he take to avoid damnation.
We see the struggles of his beautiful, decent mother (Caitriona Balfe), to raise him and his siblings during the frequent and lengthy absences of his loving but financially nonchalant father (Jamie Dornan), and the gentle teasing between his mutually adoring grandparents (Judy Dench and Ciaran Hinds), all through Buddy's eyes. We also see his father's courageous refusal to be roped in to the mob by local protestant thugs, and we hear his parents debate whether to leave their beloved hometown.
The film, written and directed by Kenneth Branagh, is largely autobiographical; it's much like Branagh's version of John Boorman's great Hope and Glory (1987), about childhood fun during the Blitz. After a glimpse of modern-day Belfast, the movie is rendered in crisply beautiful black and white by cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos, with moments in vivid color when Buddy sees movies like One Million Years B.C. or Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, or when he's taken to see A Christmas Carol onstage.
The period detail is convincing, and the acting is terrific, with Dench and Hinds unsurprisingly filching big chunks of the movie as the grandparents. Their roles, especially Dench's, are arguably underwritten, but they let us see, without telegraphing, oceanic expanses of love and worry and pride behind their offhanded manner. Branagh confers a child's-eye glamor on Dornan and Balfe; the latter lets us see her passionate nature in a couple of scenes in which she dances. And young Hill is splendidly unfussy and direct as Buddy.
Not every aspect of Belfast works; Buddy's crush, for instance, doesn't build up much audience investment, and his siblings barely register. But the movie sneaks up on you emotionally. By the end I was in tears, very honestly won.
Also, any movie with a soundtrack made up of one Van Morrison tune after another is sure to be worth seeing, if only for that.
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