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Review: Childhood in a turbulent time in nostalgic ‘Belfast’

Kenneth Branagh's latest film, Belfast, was partially based on his childhood. You probably wouldn't have known it by the end. It's a good thing.

This is not a portrait of the artist in his youth. There is a love of theater and cinema but not a nascent Shakespeare affinity or any performative tendencies. In "Belfast," Buddy (Jude Hill), is a normal child living in Northern Island with his pa (Jamie Dornan), ma (Caitriona Balfe), brother (Lewis McAskie), and grandparents (Judi Hinds, Ciaran Hinds), during "The Troubles."

This is a child's perspective on a complicated time. Neighborhood streets became war zones and children were left wondering how to determine if someone was Catholic or Protestant.

But "Belfast," is not a gritty drama. The Troubles serve as a backdrop for this nostalgic crowd pleaser. It was lovingly shot in clear, black and white by Haris Zambarloukos and set to Van Morrison music. It's going be catnip to some viewers and infuriating for others who may mistake the glossiness for superficiality.

One example is Van Morrison's soundtrack. His songs have been overused in movies to the point that they've become cliché. There is some thought behind this decision. They are contextually appropriate because they were written in the same era as the film's setting, despite the fact that the lyrics have been around for many years. Branagh's memory is what makes this film and not historical documents. He can be as flexible as he likes with his facts and garnishes. "Belfast" has a romanticized, almost wistful quality that is appropriate for someone telling a story about a place he left when only nine years old.

"Belfast" also focuses on the genuine feeling of family and not the details. This is how the movie's actors bring it to life. Branagh's cast is a credit to their talent. Balfe and Dornan might be romanticized as the most beautiful parents in the world. But Buddy's loving eyes make every moment of their relationship come alive. Hinds is a perfect example of a tinkering grandfather, who is always available to offer advice and guidance for young Buddy. Buddy is the final person to mention. Jude Hill, a newcomer to the stage, is so natural and authentic that it's almost hard to believe you're actually watching a performance. His brilliance is a testament to the beauty of "Belfast".

"Belfast," will be criticized for its sentiment, its earnestness and its broadness. It's also likely to be criticized for its humor, its sometimes witty, sometimes grating folksiness, and its ability to entertain. "Belfast," however, will divide the family because it won the Toronto International Film Festival audience prize. It is now considered the best picture frontrunner.

Many films have been described as love letters to places, people, and even cinema itself. "Belfast" is the ultimate cinematic love letter. You can see Branagh's pride in this movie, and that is all that matters.

"Belfast", a Focus Features movie, was released Friday in theaters. It is rated PG-13 (Motion Picture Association of America) for "strong language" and "some violence." Run time: 97 mins. Three stars out four.

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