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(2021) (Jude Hill, Caitriona Balfe) (PG-13)

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Drama: A preteen comes of age in his late 1960s Belfast neighborhood where some Protestants are now trying to force their Catholic neighbors out.

It's 1969 and Buddy (JUDE HILL) is a preteen living in a section of Belfast with his older brother, Will (LEWIS McASKIE), and their parents, Ma (CAITRIONA BALFE) and Pa (JAMIE DORNAN), while Buddy's grandparents -- Granny (JUDI DENCH) and Pop (CIARAN HINDS) -- live nearby. Buddy's biggest concern is not being sure how to act concerning his crush on classmate Catherine (OLIVE TENNANT), but that gets put on the back burner when violence breaks out on his street.

That stems from local Protestants, including Billy Clanton (COLIN MORGAN), wanting to force the Catholics out of their neighborhood. Pa -- a Protestant -- wants nothing to do with any of that, but being away for weeks at a time for work, it's up to Ma to hold down the fort, keep their boys safe, and try to have them lead as normal a life as possible considering the new situation.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10

Making your way in the world today
Takes everything you've got
Taking a break from all your worries
Sure would help a lot
Wouldn't you like to get away?

Sometimes you want to go
Where everybody knows your name
And they're always glad you came
You want to be where you can see
Our troubles are all the same
You want to be where everybody knows your name

You want to go where people know
People are all the same
You want to go where everybody knows your name.

Songwriters: Portnoy Gary / Angelo Judy Hart

Most people -- well, at least those my age or any who watch "oldies" on TV -- recognize that as the theme song for the NBC sitcom "Cheers" from long ago. And while the lyrics applied to the titular bar, I imagine a lot of people hope they'll experience that in their local watering hole or, more importantly (not to mention practically), their neighborhood.

Of course, while I imagine such places still exist, I'm guessing they were far more common in years long since gone by, both in America and abroad. In that sense, and had it never become associated with that sitcom, I can imagine that the catchy TV series ditty could have been the theme song for the neighborhood depicted in Kenneth Branagh's "Belfast."

Shot in black and white, featuring terrific performances, and likely one of this year's award favorites, this coming-of-age film is inspired by Branagh's childhood growing up in the title city in the late 1960s when such neighborhood unity and camaraderie was shattered by religion-based strife.

Known as "The Troubles," it's when Protestants -- mostly concentrated in Northern Ireland -- resisted going along with a majority-Catholic rule and state, resulting in conflict and violence that lasted for decades and claimed several thousand lives.

While not fully autobiographical, the actor turned long-time filmmaker -- who stays behind the camera working from the script he wrote -- clearly draws inspiration from his real-world experience growing up in such turbulent times before his family fled Belfast for England.

And he's hit cinematic paydirt in casting Jude Hill to play the young protagonist, Buddy, who's sort of, kind of, most definitely likely supposed to represent his younger self. And that includes exposure to various films from that era and decades before, many of which likely collectively inspired Branagh the boy to grow up into the actor, writer, and director.

No doubt, though, the partial fracturing of the neighorhood impacted him as well and that's the focus of the story that's set in 1969 in the city that birthed the ill-fated Titanic. When we first meet Buddy, he's headed down his neighborhood street when he's confronted by a mob of angry Protestants who start bashing windows and cars, sending everyone into a panic. That includes Buddy's mom, identified only as Ma (Caitriona Balfe) in the credits, who quickly rounds up the boy and his older brother, Will (Lewis McAskie), and places them under a table to keep them safe.

It turns out their dad -- natch, known as Pa (Jamie Dornan) -- is out of the area working like he always is, and he's eyed suspiciously upon his return by newly installed military types who aren't clear if he's arriving to add to the troubles. In his dad's repeated absences, Buddy relies on his grandparents (Judi Dench and Ciaran Hinds) for life advice, such as what he's supposed to do as related to his crush on a classmate (Olive Tennant).

Yes, even amid that anti-Catholic mob mentality -- including as related to a teenage girl who tries to bring Buddy into their "gang" -- a boy's gonna be a boy and that seems to be Branagh's point. And it's masterfully made in this nearly 100-minute offering about childhood, both innocent and in its early stages of being lost thanks to growing up as well as adult world intrusions.

With the black and white footage not only depicting a bygone and simpler era but also the bleak issues at hand, the film showcases the importance of family and neighbors, along with resilience and hope for better times. And as icing on the cake, it presumably depicts what influenced Branagh into becoming the man and filmmaker he is today, so cheers to that. Pretty terrific all around, "Belfast" rates as a 7 out of 10.

Reviewed November 2, 2021 / Posted November 12, 2021

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