Romanticism reigns in “Belfast,” Kenneth Branagh’s cinematic memoir of his childhood in a turbulent Northern Ireland. From the lustrous, mainly black-and-white photography to the cozy camaraderie of its working-class setting, the movie softens edges and hearts alike. The family at its center might have health issues, money worries and an outdoor toilet, but this is no Ken Loach-style deprivation: In these streets, grit and glamour stroll hand-in-hand.
So when Ma (Caitriona Balfe) sits in her doorway to peel potatoes for dinner, what we notice is the soft afternoon light dancing on her luminous skin and brunette curls. And when Pa (Jamie Dornan), square of jaw and shoulder, strides toward home after a spell working in England, the camera shoots him like a returning hero. Which, of course, he is, at least to his younger son, Buddy (a wonderful Jude Hill), a smart, cheery 9-year-old and a fictional version of Branagh himself.
Viewed largely through Buddy’s eyes, “Belfast,” which opens in August, 1969 (after a brief, colorful montage of the present-day city), is about the destruction of an idyll. Mere minutes into the film, a hail of Molotov cocktails ignites the friendly neighborhood where Catholics and Protestants live amicably side-by-side. A swirling camera conveys Buddy’s confusion and terror; yet, even as the barricades go up and the local bully-boy (Colin Morgan) tries to draw Buddy’s Protestant family into his campaign to “cleanse the community” of its Catholic residents, the movie refuses to get bogged down in militancy.
Instead, we watch Buddy play ball with his cousins; moon over a pretty classmate; watch “Star Trek” and Westerns on television; and spend time with his loving grandparents (Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds). Drawing from his own experiences, Branagh crafts nostalgic, sentimental scenes suffused with some of Van Morrison’s warmest songs. Family visits to movies like “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” (1968) add wonder and fantasy to Buddy’s life and a clue to his future career. They also offer an escape from a conflict he doesn’t understand and his director refuses to elucidate. Snippets of television news play in the background, but the growing Troubles that would tear the country apart are not the story that Branagh (whose family moved to England when he was nine) wants to tell.
So while “Belfast” is, in one sense, a deeply personal coming-of-age tale, it’s also a more universal story of displacement and detachment, located most powerfully in Balfe’s fierce, shining performance. Her authenticity steadies the heartbeat of a film whose cuteness can sometimes grate, and whose telescoped view offers little sense of life beyond Buddy’s block. Branagh’s remembrances may be idealized, but with “Belfast” he has written a charming, rose-tinted thank-you note to the city that sparked his dreams and the parents whose sacrifices helped them come true.
Rated PG-13 for loud bangs and angry bullies. Running time: 1 hour 38 minutes. In theaters.