Buddy, growing up in the Northern Ireland capital of Belfast in 1969, does not know much about The Troubles and, so, neither does the movie.
Kenneth Branagh's autobiographical comedy/drama opens with Buddy, who's about 9, on his way home from playing a knights-and-dragons game with friends. He turns onto the street where his family lives in a row house, only to encounter a bloody riot from which his mother saves him, grabbing a trashcan-lid "shield" from the child to deflect projectiles.
"Belfast" is told almost entirely from the viewpoint of Buddy (Jude Hill, a charmer in the role Branagh based on himself). So what we learn about the politics of the time is what he overhears when adults whisper or the TV is on.
We're aware that his Protestant-but-not-really-religious family lives in a "Protestant neighborhood" and that bigots are trying to force out Catholic families. But what Buddy cares about is pilfering from the sweet shop, smoothing things over between his worried parents (Jamie Dornan and Caitriona Balfe) or hanging around with his affectionate Granny (Judi Dench) and Papa (Ciarán Hinds).
You could argue it's a cheat to skim over the politics, since the film spends almost no time with the Catholics whose homes are being torched. And it's a distracting mistake to soundtrack "Belfast" with a dozen Van Morrison songs, given how problematic he has become. But Branagh is aiming for sentiment and nostalgia, and he hits the mark. Like John Boorman's "Hope and Glory," "Belfast" lingers over sweet details of everyday lives that are adjacent to tragedy.
Shot mostly in black-and-white, "Belfast" is elegantly made. Scenes are often viewed through windows and characters often placed in the margins of the frame, so you don't know they're there until you hear a voice and check to see where it's coming from (this is particularly true of Dench, whose role is small but whose character has a huge impact).
As a result, we get a sense of people, Catholic and Protestant, living practically on top of each other, mixed up in each other's lives in a way they enjoy. (Like "Passing," a drama that also opened this week, "Belfast" insists that random measures humans invent to divide ourselves from each other make no sense.)
The symmetrical compositions mirror an attempt to maintain order in the midst of chaos but, even if it's not clear to Buddy, we begin to wonder how long his family can bear living with a barbed-wired checkpoint at the end of the block and frequent, threatening demands to pick a side.
The conclusion is inevitable — especially if you know anything about Branagh — but the writer/director paves the way with lovely, graceful moments.
There's Papa telling Granny, "I dance a bloody jig every time you walk in the room." There's a neighbor joking that the world only has pubs because "the Irish were born for leaving." There's Buddy's obsession with westerns such as "High Noon" (whose "Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darlin' " also pops up on the soundtrack), in which right and wrong are easier to parse than in his world. There's the gut-punching final image of Dench, weeping behind a ridged-glass window.
And there's the dedication that comes after it all: "To those who left and those who stayed behind."
⋆⋆⋆ out of 4 stars
Rated: PG-13 for violence and strong language.
Where: In area theaters.