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Jude Hill

“BELFAST” My rating: A- (In theaters)

98 minutes | MPAA rating: PG-13

The first moments of Kenneth Branagh’s “Belfast” announce that we’re on the cusp of greatness.

And over 90 minutes Branagh’s heartfelt writing/directing effort delivers one of the year’s supreme movie experiences.

The film opens with Chamber of Commerce-style color footage of modern Belfast; then the screen reverts to black and white.

The year is 1969 and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos’ camera wanders breathlessly among the denizens of a bustling residential street. At the center of the action is 9-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill), all freckles, buck teeth and peach fuzz. He’s an explosion of youthful energy, slaying invisible dragons with a wooden sword.

And then playtime is suddenly over. Buddy freezes while the camera spins around him, revealing at one end of the street — slightly out of focus, making it all the more terrifying — a mob of Protestant rioters who proceed to smash the windows of Catholic houses.

Buddy stands petrified in horror; he’s plucked from the chaos by his mother (Catriona Balfe), who drags him and his teenage brother Will (Lewis McAskle) into the relative safety of their home. As nominal Protestants they’re not targets, but in the chaos anything could happen.

Catriona Balfe, Jamie Dornan

The scene is breathtaking…horrifying yet weirdly beautiful, and it establishes from the outset that the peaceful lives of Buddy and his kin are now forever changed. Religious intolerance and political anger have come to their little corner of Belfast; when next we see Buddy he’s negotiating barbed-wire checkpoints and barricades of abandoned furniture that seal off either end of the street.

“Belfast” references the sectarian civil war that raged in Northern Ireland for decades, but it’s not about history per se. Rather, this is Branagh’s attempt to conjure up his own childhood; it’s a memory play in which very personal moments play out against a looming background of potential violence. There’s not much discussion of politics or Irish history; that’s way over young Buddy’s head.

He’s more concerned with personal issues, like the little Catholic girl at school on whom he has a killer crush, or the threats directed at his father (Jamie Dornan) for refusing to join the Protestant militia (“There’s no ‘our side’ or ‘their side’ on our street.”)

He interacts with his crusty but loving grandparents (Ciaran Hinds, Judi Dench, both shoo-ins for Oscar nominations). He observes his parents’ relationship, the obvious sexual pull between them (in one intoxicating scene they dance in the street to blasts of radio-powered rock ‘n’ roll) and the tensions generated by his father’s work in England (he’s a construction carpenter) and gambling habit.

Judi Dench, Ciaran Hinds

And he is reduced to fearful tears when his parents introduce the idea of moving to London, away from danger and everything young Buddy has known.

The film is crammed with eccentric neighbors and memories of TV shows: Raquel Welsh in fur bikini in “One Million Years B.C.”, John Wayne’s comforting machismo in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence,” episodes of “Star Trek,” and especially “High Noon” (Buddy can’ help but see his own father as a Gary Cooper character faced with a deadly choice).

And there’s the terrifying sermon delivered by a spittle-spewing preacher that has a worried Buddy drawing up eschatological maps that he hopes will guide him away from hell and into the arms of the holy.

Throughout Branagh and his players maintain a careful balancing act between the deeply personal and the achingly universal; every few minutes the film delivers an emotional coda that will leave audiences reeling.

The acting is impeccable (the best ensemble cast in recent memory) and the technical production jaw-dropping beautiful. The framing of individual shots is a model of effective storytelling; it’s not deep focus, exactly, but every shot is so crammed with detail that you’d swear you could smell individual scenes.

Tie it all up with a killer soundtrack of songs by Belfast native Van Morrison, and you have 2021’s best film.

| Robert W. Butler

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