Review by Rich Cline | 4/5

dir-scr Kenneth Branagh
prd Laura Berwick, Kenneth Branagh, Becca Kovacik, Tamar Thomas
with Caitriona Balfe, Jamie Dornan, Jude Hill, Judi Dench, Ciaran Hinds, Colin Morgan, Lewis McAskie, Nessa Eriksson, Michael Maloney, Lara McDonnell, Gerard McCarthy, Olive Tennant
release US 12.Nov.21,
UK 25.Feb.22
21/UK Focus 1h38

dench hinds morgan
london film fest

Is it streaming?

balfe, dornan and mcaskie
Kenneth Branagh returns to his hometown to write and direct a warmly involving autobiographical tale about growing up during the Troubles in the late 1960s. The story strikes a nice balance as more of a nostalgic ode to his parents than a dark political drama. The setting adds edge, and gives the strong cast some terrific scenes to play, but what lingers is the warm family connection.
In 1969 Belfast, preteen Buddy (Hill) watches in horror as violent riots break out between the Protestants and Catholics in his neighbourhood. With his father (Dornan) away working in England, Buddy's mother (Balfe) worries about him and big brother Will (McAskie), warning them not to take sides in the fight. They have extended family around to provide support, including sparky grandparents (Dench and Hinds) and various cousins who lead them into mischief. Buddy's dad thinks a permanent move to England would make their lives safer, but mum is reluctant to uproot and leave home.
Because the story is told through Buddy's eyes, the unrest remains largely in the background, represented by a few harrowingly explosive set-pieces and a menacing family friend (Morgan) who thuggishly demands loyalty to the Protestant cause. Otherwise, the shimmery black and white cinematography keeps its focus on lively moments of humour and happiness, including several small adventures with larger resonance. There are also trips to see dazzling full-colour movies in the cinema, something young Buddy is obsessed with.

Hill is adorable as the imaginative, expressive Buddy, watching everything carefully and asking all the right questions to work out what it means. Dornan's Pa looms large in his mind, a heroic figure who always seems to arrive at the right time. And Dornan is terrific in some nuanced moments, as are Balfe and Hinds in equally powerful roles. It's no surprise that Dench steals the show by seeming to do nothing at all. All it takes is a tear quietly welling in her eye to add a lovely emotionality to the entire film.

Along the way, Branagh makes some knowing nods to his future career (spot the Thor comic book). And it's refreshing that he avoids over-egging the action sequences, so the film never becomes a political rant about the still-tense situation in Ireland. Instead, it's full of humane yearning for respect between people with different religious and ethnic backgrounds. But most of all, this is a celebration of family connections, and how unconditional love can carry you through pretty much anything.

cert 12 themes, language, violence 12.Oct.21 lff

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