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Director: Kenneth Branagh. CAST: Jude HillLewis McAskieCaitriona Balfe

Kenneth Branagh has got a real ‘eclectic’ filmography under his belt… From his Shakespearian masterpieces (Henry V, Hamlet), to superheroes (Thor), to pointless mediocrity (Murder on the Orient Express), as well as some real ‘stinkers’, like the infamous (and rather embarrassing) “Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein”, or Sleugh (You’re probably asking yourself “What is that?”, to which I say “Exactly!”) and the recent terrible series Artemis Fowl, for Disney Plus. 

“Belfast” signals a real return to form for the director, possibly because you can clearly tell his heart this time is in it. 

In fact this a semi-autobiographical film about his own childhood in Northern Island, living through the violent clash between Protestants and Catholics.

But the film is not what you might expect. Branagh chooses a rather counter-intuitive approach right from the start when we are treated by a sleek montage sequence of modern Belfast drenched in sunshine, in all its beauty, cut to a song by Van Morrison (in fact his songs are playing throughout the whole film). It’s scene which seems to be produced by some council-driven tourist shop, but as unexpected as it is, it is also clearly meant to put us in the right frame of mind for the story we are about to watch. This is a love letter to the city: a film dedicated to “the ones who stayed, the ones who left…. And all the ones who got lost…”.

Even beyond the surprising start, once the film dips into black and white, Branagh maintains a lightness of touch throughout, deciding to give us the point of view of a child for most of the film: a rather sentimentalised and sanitised version (or recollection) which resembles more like a picture postcard than a historical piece. The streets are pristine clean, the people in it are looking beautiful and happy: poverty is something they talk about but it doesn’t seem to weight too much of the life of the boy who still gets his present from Santa at Christmas and he’s allowed to spend time playing in the streets and gets lost in the beauty of theatre plays and movies (in fact the only colours in the film are the ones seen through the TV screen or in the cinema). Knowing what’s going to become of Branagh, this makes perfect sense (as well as one brief shot of the kid reading a comic of Thor).

His alter-ego in the film, little ‘Buddy’ is surrounded by a whole series of characters whom he loves: the pretty (and almost unreachable) girl in school, the wise grandfather who helps him out with maths (a real scene-stealer Ciarán Hinds, charming as ever), the grandmother (Judy Dench who manages to give huge depth to a massively underwritten character) and of course mother, always depicted looking gorgeous and wearing perfect make-up and father, singing and dancing “like Fred Astair” (a line from the film). And yes, there are some violent clashes too and looting going on in shops, but most of those are either played almost for laughs or bare no weight to the life of the child. 

It is a charming film and even if rather predictable, a bit simplistic and way too flashy in a few places (like carefully constructed shots of people standing in impossible positions so that their silhouettes can look perfect against the moody sky, while other characters are talking to each other, but straight down the camera lens, for no apparent reasons), it’s still highly entertaining film, funny and heart-warming at the same time and beautifully filmed (a bit too beautiful some people have argued, missing the point). A real crowd-pleaser, and a very possible contender at the Oscars this year. 

Out this Friday (21st January)

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