WHAT I LIKED: Kenneth Branagh's 'Belfast,' is a semi-autobiographical year-in-the-life story of 9-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill) in Troubles-stricken 1960s Belfast. Ultimately though, it ends up a film about what it means to be home regardless of when or where that happens to be.
Partly that's because it's just such an evocative portrait of an environment and its people. The whole thing begins with a range of almost tourist-board shots of the city as it is today, then in one breathaking move, Branagh pans his camera over a brick wall into a vibrant, black-and-white street scene back in the 60s. It continues sweeping along to see kids running around playing, people on their doorsteps having a laugh, and then to the face of our enigmatic lead, all until a riot hits and everyone suddenly rushes in panic.
The conflict runs throughout the film, but never entirely overwhelms the ordinary, everyday goings on of Buddy and his family. It's a film that brilliantly recognises that even amongst disaster and chaos, people still enjoy and worry about normal things; from Buddy's school romance, to his Mum's (Caitriona Balfe) concerns about debts.
But the conflict also works as a catalyst to challenge what makes the family home, as when Buddy's father (Jamie Dornan) travels to London for work, he decides he wants them to move to England for a safer and more prosperous life. That's something Buddy and his Mum are horrified by; not because it would mean leaving their house or the city itself, but because of the people (and Judi Dench and Ciaran Hinds' grandparents) that they would have to leave behind. Much of the film is spent watching the two of them laugh and love and have in-depth discussions with various local friends and family, so we understand pretty quickly that what's home to them is the safety and comfort of familiar faces and the people they love irrespective of the troubles.
The father's wishes are always in the background though, and as the city gets less and less safe, they're forced to choose. It's a thought-provoking and powerful decision to see anyone make, as most of us can relate to leaving home on some level, and the way it resolves is beautiful.
But the only reason we're engaged in the outcome is that we care about the characters, and that's thanks not only to Branagh's charming, honest and funny writing of all of them, but also by the great performances that bring them to life.
WHAT I DIDN'T LIKE: It is a pretty gentle film which is largely made up of numerous, very short everyday observations of the characters to build a picture of their home life. It's just the central question burning underneath that keeps you hooked, as well as the charm of it all.
VERDICT: Kenneth Branagh's 'Belfast,' paints a picture of a family and their home town by observing their many small moments with local loved ones. The fact that's also constantly under threat makes for a charming little film about what it means to be home.