A triumphant personal return to form for Kenneth Branagh.

Kenneth Branagh has been an acclaimed stage and screen actor for over three decades but his directorial efforts have been much more hit and miss. However, he has remarkably directed 21 films and while the early stretch, which consisted of several Shakespeare adaptations earned strong reviews, his more recent efforts including Murder On The Orient Express and especially the much maligned Artemis Fowl, have not earned rave reviews. Branagh’s latest film as a director is Belfast a semi-auto-biographical film depicting Belfast in the late 1960s, engulfed by the Troubles and a torn community.

Belfast has found itself in early awards conversations following its premiere at Telluride in September and winning the People’s Choice award at Toronto. This has only helped to build anticipation for the film’s release which has been pushed back in the UK until February, seemingly to tie in with the awards season.

The 1960s backdrop really works for the film and following a brief colour sequence in present day Belfast we are transported back to black & white. The film’s early moments set the tone with an outbreak of violence on the street of Buddy’s family against Catholics in the community. The threat of violence bubbles under the surface of the whole film, adding an extra dynamic and making Belfast feel like a taught city that could erupt at any moment.

Haris Zambarloukos’ cinematography is stellar and while he has worked on a few of Branagh’s features, this is a really stunningly shot film. The musical sequence involving The Love Affair’s Everlasting Love is a true highlight.

Van Morrison’s music is a constant presence in the film with Morrison composing the score and contributing both instrumentals and new vocal recordings. In some ways the film almost plays like a greatest hits for Morrison, with a series of his hits including Bright Side Of The RoadDay’s Like This and Jackie Wilson Said sound-tracking some of the key moments. With Van Morrison being one of Belfast’s finest exports, it is fitting that his music helps chart Buddy and his family’s escapades.

The cast are one of the absolute strengths of the film – Jude Hill as Buddy is both optimistic and fearful of the world around him, brimming with energy and humour throughout and he certainly possesses a cheeky nature. Jamie Dornan and Caitríona Balfe anchor much of the film, as the family debates their future in Belfast and ponder whether they would have better opportunities elsewhere. With Dornan away for periods of the film, Balfe excels at showing the strain placed on her in trying to keep the family safe.

Dornan effectively conveys his character’s doubts about how to best care for his family and with his work meaning he is in England much of the time, there is a real heartfelt relationship with his sons and he is also torn on whether to involve himself in the Protestant movement. There is some fine support from Ciaran Hinds and Judi Dench as Buddy’s Grandparents with whom he has a close relationship and who impart wisdom upon Buddy and his father.

The small scale of the film is where it really triumphs, building a true sense of community showing the impact of events on local shops and neighbours. The action rarely strays from the corner of Belfast Buddy grows up in and beyond trips to his school, his world is tiny and revolves around his family.

We are treated to glimpses at some formative cinema trips including Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and a stage production of A Christmas Carol. There are flashes of colour in these sequences that show the impact these experiences had on Branagh and how they shaped his sensibilities. We also catch Buddy and his brother watching Star Trek and westerns on TV at home. There are some neat nods to other Branagh films including a Thor comic and Poirot book but these nods never feel unearned or out of place.

Belfast is an intimate, loving ode to the community of Branagh’s youth, filled with heartfelt performances from the whole cast and some creative direction. It is often funny but also tense, emotional and full of loving nods to cinema and the late 1960s. It is too soon to say whether the early awards hype will be justified, but this ticks many boxes from films that have done well in the past and it is refreshing to see Branagh directing a film earning this sort of reception given the reaction to his last few films.

Rating: ★★★★