Belfast (M, 98 minutes)
Later in life we tend to see our childhoods with romantic whimsy. That five-mile walk to the bus stop for school becomes 10 miles and is talked about fondly. Hardship and privation are remembered as "the good old days."
Filmmaker Kenneth Branagh's romanticises his own childhood on the streets of Belfast in this glorious film.
The film opens with full-colour current-day vistas of the Northern Ireland city, its port, its mountains, the greens of its countryside and the blue-blues of its sea. It is some spectacular cinematography that overlays the film's title credits, broad sweeping imagery that contracts down to a handful of streets in the city's north as the film travels back fifty-plus years and, doing a reverse Wizard of Oz, desaturates that colour down to crisp black and white.
Now it is 1969, which we know because young Buddy (Jude Hill) is doing an assignment on the moon landing. Buddy thinks he lives a charmed life, surrounded by family and friends who watch out for him, and through Buddy's eyes, it does seem pretty great.
At home, giving Buddy a life rich in affection, are his Ma (Caitriona Balfe) and brother Will (Lewis McAskie). His Pa (Jamie Dornan) has been working away in London, but his weekends home are some of Buddy's best days, with Pa spending time with the boys, and taking the family record player out into the street to dance with Ma.
After school, Buddy drops in to the home down the road where his Granny (Judi Dench) and Pop (Ciaran Hinds) ply him with tea and biscuits and yet more love.
The obvious love shared between these couples, his parents and grandparents, is something Buddy projects onto his primary-school crush.
Buddy's life does indeed seem charmed, but what we, the grown-up viewing audience, see are the things children don't realise are going on around them.
Buddy's family is just this side of dirt poor. They're making do.
"The Troubles" have just started in Northern Ireland and Buddy's street seems to be smack in the centre of the action. A barricade of bricks and tyres has gone up at the end of their street. His Pa goes off for serious conversations with men that used to be his friends, particularly the angry Billy Clanton (Colin Morgan).
Buddy's family are Protestant, and they live in comfortable harmony with their Catholic neighbours, but outside influences intrude on their intimate street. Bricks are thrown, windows get shattered, and Pa is being told that they need to pick sides.
Child actor Jude Hill is a real find as Buddy, more than holding his own in scenes with cinema legend Judi Dench.
A job offer in London gives Pa and Ma a heart-breaking decision to make - stay and put the safety of the two boys at risk, or leave the only life they've ever known, where the boys are watched over by a community who cares for and look out for them.
This is the decision Branagh's parents had to make - his family moved to England from Belfast when Branagh was nine. That move obviously worked out pretty well for Branagh, who joined the Royal Shakespeare Company at 23 and whose career evolved from performer to writer and director, earning five Oscar nominations. He was Hamlet, he was Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher Gilderoy Lockhart, and most recently, he is Hercule Poirot.
This future success is signposted in Belfast as the young Buddy, really the young Branagh, goes to the local pictures with his brother and is all wide-eyed wonder as they take in screenings of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, High Noon and A Christmas Carol. These scenes of big-screen bliss are the only other moments of the film presented in colour.
Fans of the Netflix series Outlander will be familiar with Balfe. As Buddy's Ma, she is beautiful grace and tough sensibility. As Pa, Dornan gives solid family-man just as well as matinee-idol handsomeness. He also plays an amnesiac wandering the Aussie outback in The Tourist on Stan and is great in that too. Child actor Jude Hill is a real find as Buddy, more than holding his own in scenes with cinema legend Judi Dench.
Branagh employs a number of Van Morrison songs to lay the nostalgic charm on and even if some of them are anachronistic, it works.
Oscar nominations are announced soon and Belfast has all the things the Academy loves. The film's release just ahead of the awards implies it has a solid chance of taking the big gong.
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