Granger on Film: Kenneth Branagh’s ‘Belfast’ is a bittersweet memoir of his childhood

Jamie Dornan, left, stars as "Pa" and Jude Hill as "Buddy" in the film "Belfast." (Rob Youngson/Focus Features/TNS)

Jamie Dornan, left, stars as "Pa" and Jude Hill as "Buddy" in the film "Belfast." (Rob Youngson/Focus Features/TNS)

Rob Youngson/Focus Features / TNS

Filmmaker Kenneth Branagh’s poignant cinematic memoir of his childhood in Northern Ireland in 1969 recalls a turbulent period when Catholics and Protestants were at war with one another.

His semi-autobiographical story revolves around nine year-old Buddy (Jude Hill), who lives with his older brother (Lerwis McAskie), parents (Jamie Dornan, Caitrionia Balfe) and grandparents (Ciaran Hinds, Judi Dench). They’re Protestants in a working-class neighborhood that’s also filled with Catholic families.

Then the sectarian riots begin, the barricades go up and British soldiers arrive. Chaos reigns as bewildered Buddy watches his idyllic street become an unruly battleground. During one skirmish, Buddy’s ma rescues him using a trash can lid as a shield.

As tribalism erupts, Buddy’s pa is pressured by thuggish Billy Clanton (Colin Morgan) to participate: “Either you’re with us or against us.”

Along with watching “Star Trek” and classic TV Westerns, the treat that Buddy relishes is the local cinema, where he’s fascinated by “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” (1968) and “One Million Years B.C” (1966). (Both film clips are in color.)

Meanwhile, Buddy’s debt-riddled parents are debating whether to leave their cherished city at the height of “the Troubles” and resettle in England, where Buddy’s father has a job as a plumber and joiner.

Five-time Oscar-nominated actor/writer/director Kenneth Branagh worked with his longtime cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos to film this tale largely, but not wholly, in black and white, ostensibly as homage to street photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, who captured candid, unguarded moments.

An advantage of being monochromatic is focus — it’s immersive and minimalistic in the actors’ movements. Significantly, Branagh cast two Belfast-born actors — Hinds and Dornan — and he fills the soundtrack with Belfast-born Van Morrison.

Branagh often opts for romanticism over realism, sometimes diluting the effect of the unfolding family drama while reinforcing his empathetic viewpoint.

FYI: If you look closely, Buddy’s reading a “Thor” comic book; Branagh directed the first film adaptation of “Thor.”

On the Granger Gauge of 1 to 10, “Belfast” is a bittersweet, elegiac 8, playing in theaters and streaming on Prime Video.

Susan Granger has been an on-air television and radio commentator and entertainment critic for more than 25 years. Raised in Hollywood, Granger appeared as a child actress in movies with Abbott & Costello, Red Skelton, Lucille Ball, and Lassie. She currently resides in Westport.