To describe Kenneth Branagh's Belfast, screening at this week's BFI London Film Festival, as irresistible – and we do – is to suggest there is something about it to resist. You can count on it.
Anointed favourite for best picture at the upcoming Oscars after taking the People's Choice award at the Toronto International Film Festival, the film is set to generate a lot of domestic pondering before its commercial release in February.
Militantly apolitical, Belfast, set in the eponymous city during the late 1960s, will tell overseas viewers little about the underlying inequalities that seeded the descent into violence. (American reviews are already talking about the “war between Catholics and Protestants”.)
The prettification is conspicuous. The young protagonist, an unmistakable stand-in for the director, is seen sopping up movies such as High Noon and One Million Years BC, but none of these films is quite so glamorous as the one he’s living in.
When your parents look like Jamie Dornan and Caitríona Balfe, Grace Kelly must surely seem less of a fantasy figure. This city on the Lagan, filmed in crisp black and white, has the clean discipline of a set from Hollywood's golden age.
Yet none of this proves a significant drag. Branagh's film, which does not open here until February 25th, works gorgeously as an idealised memory play. Viewed through the flattering lens of middle-aged recollection, one's parents may really seem as easy on the eye as those two movie stars. Your grandparents could easily be as warm as Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds.
Given the lightweight nature of the drama, Branagh was perhaps wise to engage only obliquely with the politics
Branagh has cut Belfast to a handful of Van Morrison’s most comforting tunes – Warm Love, Bright Side of the Road, others – and the picture’s catalogue of reminiscence suggests the lists in one of that grumpy singer’s spoken-word pieces. The world was all Star Trek and Crunchies and Matchbox cars.
There is, of course, conflict at the core. Beginning with shots of present-day Belfast looking its best, we peer over a wall to find the city playing out the monochrome summer of 1969.
Young Buddy (fine newcomer Jude Hill) is doing well at school, but there is trouble at home and worse trouble on the streets. His dad (Dornan) is in a fight with the taxman and at odds with emerging Protestant bully boys. Granddad (Hinds), a recognisable class of Ulster romantic, is in and out of hospital with lung disease. His grandma (Judi Dench, handling a Belfast accent with expected proficiency) works hard to put the best spin on an often unhappy situation.
As hoodlums threaten the family's Catholic neighbours, Ma and Da contemplate a move to England or a more remote bit of the Commonwealth.
Given the lightweight nature of the drama, Branagh was perhaps wise to engage only obliquely with the politics. He politely directs his religious gags largely towards the community in which he grew up. “I’ve nothing against Catholics, but it’s a religion of fear,” someone says.
We then cut straight to a Protestant minister – shades of Amos Starkadder in Cold Comfort Farm – bellowing about an "eternal pit of suffering".
As we move towards an inevitable evacuation, the Branagh we know gets formed by popular culture. In one knowing moment, we see Buddy reading a Thor comic. Over 40 years later, Branagh would direct that episode of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
A collaborator with Branagh for many decades, Judi Dench gets a few closing speeches that will win over even the grumpiest sceptic
If you want to see Branagh in a grittier depiction of his native city, track down Graham Reid's Billy Plays from the early 1980s. The current film can, in contrast, hardly be bettered as idyllic fantasia in a nostalgic key.
In near-explicit acknowledgement of the rose-tinted effect, the director, who renders the plays and films in colour, allows the light from a production of A Christmas Carol to cast a golden reflection on Dench’s monochrome glasses. A collaborator with Branagh for many decades, that actor gets a few closing speeches that will win over even the grumpiest sceptic.
Originally scheduled for release in November, Belfast has, following that win at Toronto, been kicked forward three months to open in the weeks leading up to the Bafta and Oscar ceremonies. Both the last two winners of best picture Oscar, Nomadland and Parasite, adopted a similar release strategy. Multiple nominations seem a certainty.
Variety magazine currently has Hinds favourite to win best supporting actor and Balfe favourite for best supporting actress. Should Belfast, as currently predicted, win best picture, the Northern Ireland Screen production would become the first Irish film ever to take the title.
Branagh seems certain, as producer, to get a nomination for best picture and thus become the first person to be mentioned in six categories (he has already chalked up director, actor, live action short, adapted screenplay and supporting actor).
You will be hearing these statistics many time between now and the Oscar ceremony on March 27th. Get used to it.
Belfast opens on February 25th, 2022