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  • Film
  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
Photograph: Rob Youngson / Focus Features

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

Kenneth Branagh conjures a soulful and sweet cine-memoir fro the pain of a boyhood in the Troubles

It’s summer 1969. Man has just walked on the moon and the British Army has just marched on to the streets of north Belfast. Star Trek-mad nine-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill), who uses goals painted to the walls to emulate his footballing hero Danny Blanchflower, soon finds armed Tommies patrolling his old penalty box. Reading his beloved Thor comics outside his terraced house is suddenly fraught with hazard, not least from the broken glass left by sectarian rioting.

Possibly the most uplifting film ever made about a time of unending violence, Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast comes with a bruised heart and an unquenchable spirit of optimism. Like its young hero, it keeps its eyes on the stars even as the hell of the Troubles breaks out in its midst.

You may not need telling that Buddy, played with loveable chops by Hill, is based on Branagh’s younger self – or reminding that Branagh grew up to support Blanchflower’s team, Spurs, and make a movie about Thor. All that autobiographical detail underpins a film that radiates sincerity and warmth, even as its family are buffeted by grim events outside their front door and friction inside. 

Painful rows break out between Ma and Pa (Caitriona Balfe, a revelation, and Jamie Dornan) over unpaid tax bills and a future shrouded in uncertainty. Pa, a joiner, regularly heads to England to earn his corn, and his absences cause resentment. It’s not his fault there are no gigs closer to home, but Belfast is great at showing how misery breeds in the absence of choice. Luckily, Granny (Judi Dench) and Pop (Ciarán Hinds) are on hand to make sense of it all, like a pair of wise old owls with bus passes.

It all moves to the sounds of Van Morrison, whose songs lend a timeless quality that sits perfectly alongside cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos’s crisp black-and-white images.

Somehow Branagh conjured all this up during the pandemic, digging into his memory banks to tell the story of a different kind of lockdown. At times, he borrows the grammar of westerns – the flicks Buddy gazes up at in his local cinema – to show us this tough world through a child’s eyes: a place where heroes strive to keep villains in their place – and get you in for tea. 

In UK cinemas Jan 21.

Phil de Semlyen
Written by
Phil de Semlyen

Cast and crew

  • Director:Kenneth Branagh
  • Screenwriter:Kenneth Branagh
  • Cast:
    • Jamie Dornan
    • Caitriona Balfe
    • Ciarán Hinds
    • Judi Dench
    • Lewis McAskie
    • Jude Hill
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