Grade:  A/A-
Drama, comedy
Rated PG-13

I love movies. Sometimes it’s love at first sight. It was that way in 2018 when I first saw Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma, and it happened again a year later with Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit. Now I feel the same way about Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast, and it makes perfect sense: Belfast feels like a cross between those two films.

Like Roma, Branagh’s film is a loving, artsy, cinematic tribute to his home city. Filmed for the most part in black and white to feed the nostalgia, it begins in color with spectacular shots of Belfast that put to shame anything a tourist bureau could pay an advertising company to design. And soulful, start-to-finish songs by Van Morrison—arguably Ireland’s best export since pubs—help to create the deeply profound outpouring of love you feel when you watch this film.

Like Jojo Rabbit, this 2021 film also manages to combine a serious topic with humor and quirky, endearing characters—a feat accomplished, in part, because the story is largely told from the point of view of an exuberant nine year old who doesn’t quite understand everything that’s going on. There’s a boyish fantasy, an imagination at work here too that suggests the amalgam of cultural images that’s rattling around inside his head and helping to shape his world view. That’s evident just from looking at the covers of the Blu-rays, with Waititi’s and Branagh’s young boys soaring above the ground like figures in a Marc Chagall painting. Buddy’s world view is also influenced by pop culture, including American Westerns that the boy watches with extended family—intended by Branagh as a thematic and structural parallel.

In Belfast, our first glimpse of Buddy (Jude Hill) is of him playing in the streets with the other kids as parents watch or dance in the street to a phonograph record. Some children are jumping rope or playing soccer, but others, like Buddy, are having a mock battle, with Buddy wielding a homemade gladiator-style sword and garbage-can lid shield. That play gets real really fast, as a gang of Protestant thugs shows up at the end of this cul-de-sac neighborhood—one Branagh depicts as loving and communal—and starts hurling Molotov cocktails and rocks, bashing windows, and threatening people. So much for nostalgia. So much for an idyllic childhood, as Buddy needs to be rescued by his mother (Caitríona Balfe), who uses his shield not for play but to protect both of their heads from rocks and missiles.

Though rated PG-13 instead of R, Belfast packs a powerful message that at first glance doesn’t seem family-friendly. But it’s a film that families ought to watch, because it’s about how one family copes with the political rift and violence of an era. Especially now, when America is sharply divided and 39 percent of one side told a November 2021 Pew Research Poll they think violence “might be needed to save America,” families ought to watch films like Belfast. And they ought to have tough conversations with their children about these uncertain times, and how we must learn to coexist with people of different faiths, sexual orientations, skin tones, and political beliefs. Honestly, compared to what’s happening in the news these days—things children are already exposed to—Belfast seems like a tame PG comedy-drama.

Branagh’s film is set in August 1969, when a group of Protestant loyalists launch an attack on the Catholic businesses and homes on nine-year-old Buddy’s street. It would have been a powerful and moving story had Buddy’s family been Catholic, but by making them Protestant, by making them and other Protestants on the street supportive of their Catholic neighbors, Branagh creates a film that seems also intended to be an inspirational call to be each other’s keeper, as the Bible says. Except in this film, the Protestant preacher seems to be a loyalist himself, because his fire-and-brimstone speech seems like a political call to a different sort of action. We watch, then, as family members are pressured to join the movement or face consequences, and we watch how Buddy responds to puppy love of a girl who just happens to be Catholic.

There’s rioting, there’s looting, and there’s a moment of truth for this family, but the theme of family shines through like no other beacon. As Buddy’s grandfather (Ciarán Hinds) says, “Your father looks out for you, your mother looks out for you, your brother looks out for you, your whole family looks out for you. Remember that wherever you go.” And yes, that applies to extended family and community as well. One gentleman reminds Buddy’s father (Jamie Dornan), “They also serve who stand and wait. We all can’t be acting like the Lone Ranger.” There are many ways to stand up or show support without physically engaging the opposition.

Haris Zambarloukos’ cinematography is wonderful, not only for the artful angles and compositions of shots, but for the emotions that those shots evoke. At times, Belfast seems to be one of the film’s most important characters, while at other times we’re reminded that the black-and-white film is intended to be evocative of an era—as when the family goes to a theater and watches Chitty-Chitty Bang Bang shown on the screen in color. We see and appreciate how much of a family event going to the theater was, but also how entertainments like film, especially during times of conflict and unrest, can be saving graces. What’s more, there are smaller themes that model positive behavior in this film, including a loving and playful relationship between the grandparents (Hinds and Judie Dench) and the extreme insistence on personal values that the mother displays when Buddy crosses the line. Some films talk about family values; Belfast shows them in action.

Morrison’s songs are like a private concert, but everything about this film sings, including a cast that seems absolutely perfect. Belfast is a must-add to your family home theater libraries. Nominated for Best Picture, it probably won’t win the Oscar. But in my book it’s deserving of one.

Entire family:  No (age 10 and up)
Run time:  98 min. Black-and-white and spot color
Aspect ratio:  1.85:1 widescreen
Featured audio:  DTS-HDMA 7.1
Studio/Distributor:  Focus Features/Universal Pictures
Bonus features:  A-/B+
Includes:  Blu-ray, Digital Copy
Amazon link
Rated PG-13 for some violence and strong language

Language:  5/10—One f-bomb and another handful of lesser curse words

Sex: None; it’s quite wholesome in that respect—sweet, even

Violence:  4/10—After the opening riot sequence (mostly shocking because of the surprise factor), one character gets conked on the head with a chunk of brick, and another is punched in the face; Marvel Universe and other superhero films are far more violent

Adult situations:  5/10—One character dies, but not because of violence; a child is threatened in a tense scene; a second riot is a crime against property, not persons; and alcohol is seen consumed both in the home and in the pub

Takeaway:  You can go home again, because family is forever . . . and so should be family values