Kenneth Branagh's sentimental journey is an absolute joy: BRIAN VINER reviews ...

Kenneth Branagh's sentimental journey is an absolute joy: BRIAN VINER reviews ...
Kenneth Branagh's sentimental journey is an absolute joy: BRIAN VINER reviews ...

Belfast (12A, 98 minutes)

Verdict: A small masterpiece

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Nightmare Alley (15, 150 mins)

Verdict: Overlong, but hugely stylish

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Sir Kenneth Branagh has never made a secret of his early life, growing up in Northern Ireland as the Troubles erupted, then leaving at the age of nine when his working-class Protestant parents made the decision to move the family to England to escape the turmoil.

But it has always seemed like a footnote to his story. With his largely autobiographical drama Belfast, for which he won a richly deserved Best Screenplay award at the Golden Globes earlier this month, he shines a spotlight on it for the first time.

The result is a bewitchingly intimate, warm-hearted, wholly captivating film, firmly rooted in a particular time and place yet in a way telling a generic tale, that of refugees through the ages.

Sir Kenneth Branagh has never made a secret of his early life, growing up in Northern Ireland as the Troubles erupted

Sir Kenneth Branagh has never made a secret of his early life, growing up in Northern Ireland as the Troubles erupted

He left at the age of nine when his working-class Protestant parents made the decision to move the family to England to escape the turmoil

He left at the age of nine when his working-class Protestant parents made the decision to move the family to England to escape the turmoil

From start to finish, it is enchantingly done. It opens with colour shots of modern-day Belfast, accompanied, as the film is throughout, by the music of Van Morrison. Then it morphs into black and white to show a contented urban scene in August 1969: children playing, neighbours chatting, a happy community at one with itself and a young boy, Buddy (engagingly played by newcomer Jude Hill), slowly making his way home.

Suddenly, everything changes. Rioters appear, hardline Loyalists bent on driving Catholics from the mostly Protestant neighbourhood. Branagh effects a powerful 360-degree shot around the bewildered Buddy as nasty, violent tumult invades his innocent, carefree boyhood.

Soon there are tanks rolling up Mountcollyer Street, where Buddy lives with his parents (Caitriona Balfe and Jamie Dornan), and older brother, Will (Lewis McAskie), with his paternal grandparents Granny (Dame Judi Dench) and Pop (Ciaran Hinds) nearby.

Not giving actual names to the grown-ups seems to be another nod to the story’s universality, and more specifically, in the case of Ma and Pa (as Balfe and Dornan are credited), to the importance of Westerns in Buddy’s imagination. 

Meanwhile, the ceiling appears to have fallen in on his world except, significantly, it hasn't. What has actually descended is a state of being especially resonant in our own pandemic-blighted times: a new normal. Family and community life go on as before. Even poisonous sectarianism finds its way into everyday dialogue: 'Daddy, are you not going to be a vigilante on our barricade?'

With his largely autobiographical drama Belfast, for which he won a richly deserved Best Screenplay award at the Golden Globes earlier this month, he shines a spotlight on it for the first time

With his largely autobiographical drama Belfast, for which he won a richly deserved Best Screenplay award at the Golden Globes earlier this month, he shines a spotlight on it for the first time

The essence of Belfast, a little like John Boorman's charming Hope And Glory (1987), is this transition from peace to war in the context of a little boy's life, and that of his family.

In fact, Buddy has more pressing concerns than men with guns, such as a crush on a girl in his class and a minor shoplifting rap. The bitter strife in the streets isn't even the biggest headache for his parents; there's an onerous tax bill to pay and growing evidence that Pop's lungs are giving out.

The relationship between Buddy and Pop is depicted with irresistible tenderness and humour. 'There's nothing wrong with an outside toilet,' says the old man, 'except on an aeroplane.'

From start to finish, it is enchantingly done. It opens with colour shots of modern-day Belfast, accompanied, as the film is throughout, by the music of Van Morrison

From start to finish, it is enchantingly done. It opens with colour shots of modern-day Belfast, accompanied, as the film is throughout, by the music of Van Morrison

Hinds plays Pop beautifully, but it might be Dench's performance that moves you to tears, as Granny comes to terms with Ma and Pa's painfully conflicted decision to uproot themselves.

Dornan is terrific, too; and Balfe, beguilingly bonny even when her character is in despair, will surely lift a statuette or two before awards season is done.

For some people, perhaps, the seam of sentimentality that runs through the picture might be too much.

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