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Belfast is in UK cinemas from 21 January. 

Since Thor in 2011, Kenneth Branagh’s directorial trajectory on film has largely been as a safe pair of hands tackling various commercial franchise assignments. When Covid intervened to delay the release of the already completed Death on the Nile – his second Hercule Poirot offering, lockdown time at home allowed him to ponder a more personal project; this autobiographical drama recalling a turning point in his own family’s life is the result. Shot mainly in very clean black and white to underline its arthouse ambitions, it demonstrates Branagh’s profound investment in the material, but also displays his struggle to downsize from a broader cinematic canvas to a more intimate scale.

Buddy, the nine-year-old boy caught up in the turmoil of the nascent Troubles, clearly represents young master Branagh. Thanks to Jude Hill’s bright-eyed, uncannily believable performance, Belfast picks up every time he’s on screen, while Branagh’s writing affectingly shapes the vulnerability and stroppy petulance of this innocent pitched into jeopardy.

Many viewers of a certain age will find their own childhood memories flooding back on seeing Buddy in his Thunderbirds International Rescue uniform on Christmas Day, playing Subbuteo at home, or thrilling as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang takes flight on a family outing to the cinema. Branagh retains that film’s original Technicolor, presenting Buddy with an imaginative escape from his black-and-white surroundings; he opens the movie, too, with touristy colour footage of today’s spruced-up city, set to the sounds of local hero Van Morrison, whose back catalogue provides an occasionally jarringly soulful accompaniment throughout the action. If that prelude gives the impression we’re in for a celluloid love letter to Branagh’s birthplace, however, the blissful mood is swiftly shattered.

Buddy is merrily skipping on the sunny side of the street when an angry crowd floods the area, hurling rocks, petrol bombs and abuse. It’s 15 August 1969 and the Troubles have arrived at this previously contented spot, where residents across the religious divide have been rubbing along together. With 360-degree tracking shots and multiple angles, Branagh frames this as a big action-movie moment; counter-productively, this takes us out of the reality he’s trying to recreate (which unfolds on a terraced-street set knocked up on an exhibition-centre car park in Hampshire, and looking every bit of it).

Jude Hill and Jamie Dornan, Belfast (2021)
Jude Hill and Jamie Dornan, Belfast (2021)
© Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Opting not to fill in the NI civil rights-era political background, the film remains light on context, instead conveying the child’s confusion and the principled refusal of his dad (Jamie Dornan) to join the bullies. But after this explosive opening salvo, the film rather fails to build much tension from the Protestant gang’s flaccid attempts to pressure him into joining their anti-Catholic cause. Branagh slips in footage from Zinnemann’s High Noon as it conveniently plays on TV, which fails to provide suspense-by-association, while the father’s carpentry job in England, which somehow allows him to slip away and return at will, delivers deflating nick-of-time relief at moments when threat levels are rising. Never mind the travel expenses, it’s implausibly convenient, yet the script needs this English angle in place to suggest a potential third-act familial escape route.

What we’re left with is a movie that treads water much of the way and distracts attention with various under-written, though often charming, bits and pieces. A hellfire preacher leaves Buddy momentarily fearing damnation if he takes the wrong path, before he and we forget all about it; some pre-pubescent romance with a clever Catholic classmate (in a country where schools were generally religiously segregated?) adds light comedy; and Caitríona Balfe, as ‘Ma’, gives a decent account of herself in the big speechifying moments, facing the choice of a brighter future for her children at the painful cost of separating her household from the North Belfast community. Judi Dench too proves surprisingly convincing as the gimlet-eyed granny, though Ciarán Hinds (19 years her junior in real-life) as her steadfast husband feels like a poor casting choice, and their on-screen relationship never really recovers.

Frankly, there are myriad flubs here, but Branagh just about gets away with it – we root so strongly for Buddy that we’re perhaps unduly forgiving of the narrative shambles around him. The point of view is also hard to work out, a sort of anonymous overview that could have been more precisely rendered. Branagh is no Terence Davies. Still, his unsparing and unforgiving attitude towards Protestant bigotry makes a potent statement, and the decision to lift his head above the parapet deserves respect.