Pluck of the Irish: Kenneth Branagh's 'Belfast' an insightful, delightful domestic drama
"Belfast" - ★ ★ ★ ★
Writer/director Kenneth Branagh's most jubilantly personal movie yet, "Belfast," begins as a classic horror film and ends where a classic immigrants drama would normally start.
In between, Branagh's pop-music-pumped, sumptuously detailed, black-and-white-rendered reconstruction of his traumatized, dramatized youth clearly evokes Alfonso Cuarón's Oscar-winning 2018 epic "Roma" in its subject and noiry aesthetics.
Whereas the 135-minute "Roma" tended to be an upscale, keister-testing art film, the fleet, 97-minute "Belfast" not only moves much faster, it moves us much more.
"Roma" and "Belfast" both illustrate great appreciation for Kubrickian symmetry. But take a closer look and you'll spot key visual differences.
The former employed many wide, expansive vistas, even inside houses. In the latter, cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos frequently places actors inside virtual boxes formed by window frames, doorjambs, wrought-iron fences, walls, mirrors, and staircase rails and banisters.
These characters feel trapped and imprisoned, with many shots of them looking through makeshift bars to something beyond what their once-peaceful hometown, Belfast, has become.
As if taking a cue straight out of "A Quiet Place Part II," "Belfast" opens with an idyllic community scene with kids and families enjoying the day before an abrupt, violent invasion.
The camera falls on the expressive face of 9-year-old Buddy (a luminously transparent Jude Hill).
Then, the lens takes two, slow, 360-degree turns around Buddy's head as the sky darkens and his joyful face morphs into shear fear. He sees something we don't.
This terrible, brilliantly gripping sequence takes place in 1969 when anti-nationalist Protestants in Northern Ireland assault a Catholic neighborhood while poor Buddy stands in their way, armed only with a garbage can lid to use for a shield.
His mother, called Ma ("Outlander" star Caitriona Balfe, emanating an elegant Cate Blanchett vibe) does the best she can to raise her family while Pa (a charismatically reserved Jamie Dornan) must travel to England for his low-paying job.
Buddy's grandfather Pop (a lovably grizzled Ciarán Hinds) and his longtime wife, Granny (a weather-beaten, vanity-free performance by Judi Dench), provide comic relief and occasional sagely advice.
"If you can't be good, be careful," Pop says, and his cautionary chestnut comes in handy later.
For now, Pop has been giving romance tips to Buddy, who's fallen for a cute classmate called Catherine (Olive Tennent).
"Do you think she and I have a future?" Buddy asks Pa.
"Why the heck not?" he asks.
"Because she's a Catholic."
The conflict in Northern Ireland has been depicted in films many, many times before, and the usual approach focuses on the self-destructive nature of escalating violence. Here, Branagh relegates the deadly religious and political fighting to the background, choosing instead to focus on the universal domestic drama about a family struggling to survive.
Branagh himself was 9 years old when he and his family moved from Belfast to England to avoid the growing violence. Because his movie has been based on his memories, it's little wonder why Zambarloukos often positions his camera low and wide, approximating the perspective of a 9-year-old.
American television plays a big part of Buddy's formative entertainment.
He watches episodes of "Star Trek."
As a young Branagh did, he also watches movies, among them the musical "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" (based on Ian Fleming's book) and Raquel Welch's cheesy "One Million Years B.C." (both of these shown in full, brilliant color to appreciative black-and-white audiences).
He also views two classic westerns -- John Ford's "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" and Gary Cooper's "High Noon."
Branagh makes one misstep here when, after playing the haunting and terribly relevant lyrics to "The Ballad of High Noon," he plays them again as sledgehammered commentary under a riot scene during which Ma and Pa are held at gunpoint.
It's way too blunt for the Shakespearean-trained-and-tested Branagh, normally a more nuanced filmmaker with a supremely populist touch.
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Starring: Jude Hill, Caitriona Balfe, Judi Dench, Jamie Dornan, Ciarán Hinds
Directed by: Kenneth Branagh
Other: A Focus Features release. In theaters. Rated PG-13 for language and violence. 97 minutes