Kenneth Branagh directs the striking tale “Belfast” loosely based on his own childhood. Shot primarily in black and white, the film is stirring and reflective echoing the naturalism of François Truffaut with subtle touches of the surreal.
Buddy (Jude Hill) is a young blonde boy who dreams of the movies and science fiction. He lives in a concrete block apartment in 1960’s Belfast with his mother (Catriona Balfe). Everyone knows the cheerful and inquisitive boy. Buddy’s father (Jamie Dornan) is often away on business.
Mom tries to keep everything together even though life is somewhat dreary and routine. Buddy likes Belfast. There is school, his friends, and he feeds his imagination by the films that he happens to see.
“Belfast” mirrors “Saving Private Ryan.” In one harrowing scene, Mom defends herself and buddy from rocks and fire by using a garbage bin lid as a shield like Captain America in a Marvel film. Noise is everywhere and a Protestant army has bats and shovels. It is a scene of dark pain, hate and unbridled chaos.
Buddy’s neighborhood is nearly leveled and resembles a war-zone. Barbed wire barricades are poised outside like a giant’s game of jacks.
A man in black (Colin Morgan) rises seemingly out of the smoke to insist on giving protection for a fee. Buddy’s dad refuses sensing extortion.
Buddy copes by watching ‘Star Trek’ and dreams about his classmate, a cute but reticent girl who excels at maths. When this grows tiring he observes life from quiet corners, removed, from a distance. Buddy is clearly a voyeur. Men are often darkly clad, tall and threatening. Adults bark and shout orders, sharp, loud and incomprehensible. Cinema is the only antidote.
At times, the boy is forced to create his own realm. He stands atop a scorched and crumpled car looking wistfully at the sooty clouds, as if pondering extraterrestrials or puffing dragons. With his blonde head and his wide eyes, Buddy resembles Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petite Prince, adrift on a foreign planet.
Imagination and dreaming become transformative escapes as danger can come in many forms, from a dark car, a pulverized glass window or a male hand.
A bouncy soundtrack by Van Morrison underscores childhood innocence in the face of adult division and war.
Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds deliver reasoned advice to Buddy as grandma and grandpa respectively.
Although sprinkled with adult menace, meaning and darkness, “Belfast” is filmed with the heart of a child. There is something of Roald Dahl in the cramped cosiness of quirky grands, but with its air of danger and fear, J.G Ballard’s Empire of the Sun comes to mind, where children craft toys from their personal trauma and adults are either savage or nonchalant.
Above all, Branagh has directed a bittersweet tale of imagination and danger in the city of Belfast that fits solidly among the great films of Vittorio De Sica, Truffaut, Jim Sheridan and Steven Spielberg.
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