Kenneth Branagh’s autobiographical drama “Belfast” movingly finds a very difficult balance: It’s a film both thoroughly sentimental and grittily real. Taking place mostly in the summer of 1969, it’s the story of 9-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill), who lives with his Protestant parents and brother in a working-class Belfast neighborhood that’s suddenly torn apart by violent demonstrations stemming from religious differences. The streets quickly become a war zone, and Branagh doesn’t shield our gaze from the horrors. But he lets us see them as young Buddy — and as he himself, a Belfast native born in 1960 — would see them: it’s like the good-vs.-bad Westerns that Buddy loves to watch at the movie house, an adventure that he’s observing.
The sentiment comes in the film’s portrait of Buddy’s parents, played by Caitríona Balfe and Jamie Dornan (in keeping with the movie’s point of view, we only know them as Ma and Pa). Buddy adores his kind, tough mother and father, and the movie lets us see them as he does, through a lens made soft by love: Ma as a superhero racing into a crowd to save Buddy; Pa singing to Ma like a crooning pop star at a local gathering; the two of them dancing together, looking movie-star gorgeous, as if they were the only two people in the world. Buddy’s grandparents, played by Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds, are equally charming; the little boy smiles, watching them hug. And it’s evidence of how precisely Branagh has crafted the film that none of this comes off as too much; it’s a cinematic love letter to his family, and maybe to ours as well.
Shot in soft black-and-white, with color occasionally peering in at the movie houses where Buddy spends rapt hours, “Belfast” is brief, tidy and lovely; a heartfelt story of family and home, and how where the former is, the latter resides. “The Irish were born for leaving,” a minor character observes. “Otherwise the rest of the world would have no pubs.”
Buddy’s still a child at the end of the film, but he’s grown up a bit, and learned that nothing is forever. “For the ones who stayed,” the film’s final dedication reads. “For the ones who left. And for all the ones who were lost.”