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Roman à clef screenwriting: Belfast

Jude Hill, left, and Jamie Dornan in Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast.

IN 1969, long-simmering tensions in Northern Ireland boiled over, beginning the three decades of religious and political conflict known as The Troubles. It took 3,500 lives and prompted thousands to flee their homeland.

This is the backdrop of Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast, loosely based on the filmmaker’s own childhood. Belfast, however, delivers no political message, and doesn’t take a side in the conflict. We see and hear things largely the way that nine-year-old Buddy, played by a winsome Jude Hill, does. The boy can’t quite make sense of the Protestant-versus-Catholic thing that’s unfolding in his tightly knit working-class neighbourhood. That’s because he’s also pining for the smart blonde in his class, trying to get a gold star in math, watching as many films as he can at the local movie house and on television, and worrying about his father’s plan to relocate the family to England. (All to the music of Belfast rock legend Van Morrison.)

Like Buddy, Branagh left Belfast at the age of nine, moving to Reading with his family. He calls Belfast one of his most personal projects to date.

Too charming at times and laced with more than a touch of blarney, Belfast is Branagh’s memoir of his old neighbourhood, and memoirs are always filtered through screens of nostalgia and sentimentality. The boy’s parents, played by Jamie Dornan and Caitriona Balfe, are exceptionally good-looking and charismatic, but that’s fine because that’s how Buddy remembers them. The film is shot almost entirely in black and white, further underscoring the idea that we’re glimpsing a time in the past.

Sidestepping politics throughout the film, Branagh nevertheless dispatches a powerful dedication just before the closing credits: For the ones who stayed. For the ones who left. And for all the ones who were lost.

A certain Oscar contender!

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