Belfast ★★★★

Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast, the director’s semi-autobiographical tale of growing up in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s, is a vibrant, warm and evocative film. It’s currently poised as a major contender for this year’s Best Picture Oscar, and it’s easy to see why – it’s an upbeat and jubilant affair with memorable performances and striking black-and-white cinematography.

Buddy (Jude Hill) lives with his parents Ma (Caitriona Balfe) and Pa (Jamie Dornan) in a working-class neighborhood in Belfast. It’s the early days of the Troubles, a nearly 30-year period in which Irish Protestants and Catholics clashed in Northern Ireland. The politics of this era are fascinating, but Belfast doesn’t spend much time explaining the specifics of the conflict - which is just as well, as Belfast is told from Buddy’s point-of-view, and a child is unlikely to fully comprehend the nature of the conflict.

Buddy’s family is Protestant, but Ma and Pa refuse to shun their Catholic neighbors or join the ranks of the militant Protestants on their block. With their neighborhood increasingly becoming a war zone, Pa proposes that the family move to England – which would mean leaving Buddy’s grandparents Granny (Judi Dench) and Pop (a wonderful Ciaran Hinds) behind in Belfast.

Working within this fairly simple narrative, Branagh allows us to sit back and experience the everyday existence of a young boy living in this world. The film is incredibly effective as a memory piece (and a great deal more entertaining than it sounds on paper).

Among other things, Belfast is very perceptive about how pop culture touchstones of an era inform a child’s perception of the world. For instance, after watching High Noon on television, Buddy pictures his Pa as Gary Cooper, boldly standing up to the militant Protestants who demand his loyalty. When Pa faces down those loyalists, the sequence is shot like a western, with Tex Ritter’s Do Not Foresake Me, Oh My Darlin’ scoring the scene. The rest of the soundtrack consists primarily of Van Morrison songs, which is a lovely and most welcome choice of music. Even if some of the songs are anachronistic to the time period, they’re reflective of the spirit of the neighborhood, where certainly some Van Morrison song was playing at any given time.

If there’s a criticism of Belfast, it’s that Buddy – who is ostensibly our protagonist – doesn’t really make any decisions. He is never anything more than a passive observer, and while that might very well reflect the experience of a young boy in this situation, it doesn’t make Buddy a particularly compelling character.

While watching Belfast, my mind wandered to another recent film that does an excellent job of keeping its adolescent protagonist active – Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit (2019). In that film, Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis), a child living in Nazi Germany, is similarly experiencing major upheaval in his country. But whereas Buddy simply sits and observes, Jojo constantly wrestles with his allegiance to Hitler – which he ultimately decides to break by helping a young Jewish girl escape the Nazis.

In the end, Belfast is such a charming and pleasant experience that this feels like a minor quibble, but lending some agency to our protagonist could have resulted in an even stronger narrative.