The young boy stares up at his father on the social club stage. Crooning along to ‘Everlasting Love’ in his shirtsleeves and tie, the man looks for all the world like a matinee idol. (That he’s played by Jamie Dornan doesn’t hurt.) Meanwhile, on the dance floor, the boy’s mother pogos and spins in a sleeveless dress, as the lighting grants her the silver-lined silhouette of a starlet. (Again, it helps that she’s played by Outlander’s Caitríona Balfe.)
A family funeral has just taken place, but the shift from grief to relief has already begun – and the boy, whose name is Buddy (Jude Hill), is drinking in both the ritual at large and the glow of fondness between his parents it has rekindled. This scene occurs around three quarters of the way through Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast, and is so tender and entrancing that it single-handedly justifies the whole film’s existence. But it also belatedly makes you realise how many tricks are missed throughout the rest of this autobiographically skewed period piece, about a nine-year-old lad growing up in its writer-director’s hometown in 1969, as the Troubles first flared.
It opens with a full-colour, tourist-board-like glide around the present-day city, but after a minute or two, the camera hops over a wall and into the black-and-white past. It’s here that Buddy is about to undergo a grimly formative experience, as a scene of neighbourly amity is shattered by the arrival of a mob, who want to drive his street’s minority of Catholic residents from their homes. The scene is tensely and persuasively staged, but it’s notable for being one of the few that feels like it authentically captures a young boy’s experience: elsewhere, Branagh tends to plump for dramatic compositions that look arresting but feel like the opposite of a kid’s-eye-view. The politics, meanwhile, are far more childlike, with the conflict portrayed as religious rather than nationalistic in nature, and no opinion ventured beyond “divisions are bad”.
That’s enough for Belfast’s purpose, which is to sketch various coming-of-age moments (a classroom crush, parental money worries, a fire-and-brimstone sermon, and so on) over a backdrop of brewing unrest. It’s done here with considerably more artfulness and sensitivity than it was in 2019’s Jojo Rabbit, in which the Holocaust was reduced to a source of quick-fix historical gravitas. But even so, Belfast’s flights of nostalgia can feel oddly impersonal. The script is laden with lines and jokes you’ve heard many times before, and you can often sense Branagh coaching his (extremely cute) young lead’s performance from just out of shot.
But Dornan and Balfe are wonderful as the imperfect-but-loving parents doing their best, while as Dornan’s own Ma and Pa, Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds deliver industrial quantities of twinkle. At its best, Belfast recalls Hope and Glory, John Boorman’s 1987 film based on its director’s own Blitz-battered childhood. In one of many awards-montage-ready sequences, Dench rheumily recalls drawing fake stocking seams on the backs of her legs in her youth – surely a nod to the scene in Boorman’s film in which the young lead’s boy-mad sister does exactly that. Meanwhile, colour sporadically explodes across the screen during Buddy's Cinema Paradiso-like trips to the pictures and the theatre, where films and plays unfold in vivid, life-enriching hues. There’s an entire world out there waiting for him – and perhaps further ones waiting to form inside his head, as they did in Branagh’s own. It’s a pity this one isn’t a little more distinctive and sharply honed.
12A cert, 108 min. In cinemas from January 21