At the Movies: Belfast is a bittersweet look at a Northern Irish childhood

Belfast (PG13)

98 minutes, opens February 3, 4 stars

Many autobiographical films are born from the filmmaker’s desire to explain the past. It’s a form of art therapy – some might call it exorcism – that can make for great movies.

In Singaporean director Anthony Chen’s Ilo Ilo (2013) and Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma (2018), the filmmakers look sympathetically at their parents – through lenses that can now see what they were going through.

British actor and director Kenneth Branagh – who built a career displaying his perfect received pronunciation in films such as Shakespeare’s adaptations Henry V (1989) and Hamlet (1996) – reveals a childhood spent on the other side of water, in the Northern Irish town of the film’s title.

The year is 1969 and nine-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill) is the youngest of a cash-strapped Protestant family. Pa (Jamie Dornan) works in England, so he’s away most of the time. Ma (Caitriona Balfe) must manage day-to-day affairs on her own, as sectarian violence between Protestants and Catholics rages in the streets.

Unlike Cuaron or Chen, who turned their stories into dramas, Branagh’s film, which he also wrote, is a dramatic comedy.

He handles it with typical finesse. There are dark jokes about patriots actually looking for an outlet for their hatred, as well as sad observations about being born in a country that chases so many of its people – to places where, as observed Buddy, their accents will be mocked.

It’s a cheeky reference to Branagh’s own transformation – from a bullied Northern Irish immigrant to a quintessentially English actor.

It’s a warm and accessible story, with strong comedic beats and Hollywood-style relatability enhanced by the use of songs by Northern Irish rock icon Van Morrison.

Screenings in Singapore will be subtitled in English as the accents, as mentioned, are thick.

Yuni (NC16)

95 minutes, opens February 3 exclusively in the spotlight, 4 stars

About Bernice D. Brewer

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