★★★★☆

Does a filmmaker use cinema as his or her own confessional booth or a darkened space in which to escape the harsh realities of the outside world? When the curtain closes and the lights go down on Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast, it’s clear that this deeply autobiographical project is a vessel for both. With wit, grace and a sincere affection for the town of his birth, the writer-director explores the people and stories that populated his childhood.

Opening shots show the city as it is today. Familiar landmarks stand tall, resolute; the great Harland & Wolff shipyard structures looking down across the town. Ascending a muralled wall picturing hardy dock workers and we are transported from pastel graffiti to bright and breezy monochrome, dropped into a summer’s day in August 1969. Buddy (Jude Hill, a star in the making) finishes fighting off dragons with his pals as he’s called home for his tea. An upturned bin lid, which moments earlier protected him from fire-breathing monsters, is now needed to cover his head from a hail of bricks. Wide-eyed and uncomprehending, a stunning, revolving shot orbits the young man, frozen in the face of an onrushing gang, smashing windows and doors all around him.

So begin “The Troubles” for this quiet street in north Belfast, as seen through a child’s eyes. And here we witness the dual purpose of camera and viewpoint that will echo throughout the film. The playfulness and innocence of youth interrupted and at times violently punctuated by events beyond Buddy’s – and by extension our own – understanding. The context is there, but by and large it remains background noise, or hushed grown-up whispers about dangerous men and, closer to home, debts owed to HMRC. News reports appear occasionally; Harold Wilson is glimpsed on the TV before Buddy’s Ma (a tremendous Caitriona Balfe) swiftly turns it off. The ‘bigger picture’ exists in another realm, insulated as Buddy is by his parents, and grandparents, but it does edge ever closer. The why is perhaps of less concern than the what.

A decision has to be made: does the family stay in Belfast and fight it out or do they leave all they have known and start a new life elsewhere, potentially as far away as Sydney or Vancouver? With his Pa (Jamie Dornan, whose role and performance grows in stature as the film progresses) away for weeks at a time in England working as a joiner, attempting to pay off back taxes, deep-thinking conversations with Pop (Ciarán Hinds), visits to the theatre or pictures with Granny (Judi Dench) and watching Westerns on the TV fills Buddy’s time and attention. With the majority of the film shot in cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos’ stunning black and white photography, colour and warmth instead come from time spent with neighbours, wise cracks, loving looks and impromptu parties.  

Fluid and intimate for the most part, infrequent front-on positioning and shot-reverse shot direct address across the fourth wall underline moments of confrontation, of stubborn, insurmountable opposition. But for Buddy, tired of cheeky sideways glances, and seeking to improve his maths score to move up a desk and sit next to the girl he resolves to one day marry, Pop says that long division is much like spread-betting on a horse race. It’s best to cover all the bases, make a 6 look a bit like a 2, a 1 like a 7 with a funny tail. Branagh’s script is rife with such wry humour. Full to the brim with reverence and love for his characters, the performances he elicits are uniformly excellent.

A rendition of ‘How to Handle a Woman’ by Pop as he takes Granny for a quick two-step around the kitchen will have your heart brimming. Our proverbial cup truly does runneth over. Religion, too, does of course play a significant part. William is Protestant and Patrick a Catholic, but what about Thomas? Hard to tell. Again, even the bitter ‘us and them’ battles being waged in the streets as Catholics are forced from their homes in this predominantly Protestant area are distilled through non-judgemental eyes. Not the austere, politically-driven character study you may have perhaps anticipated, Belfast is instead a spry, uplifting triumph of never judging a book by its cover and simply loving thy neighbour, whoever they may be.

Visit the BFI London Film Festival page to delve deeper into the wealth of films on show this year.

Matthew Anderson | @MattAndo63