Producers: Laura Berwick, Kenneth Branagh, Becca Kovacik and Tamar Thomas   Director: Kenneth Branagh   Screenplay: Kenneth Branagh    Cast: Jamie Dornan, Caitríona Balfe, Jude Hill, Judi Dench, Ciarán Hinds, Lewis McAskie, Lara McDonnell, Colin Morgan, Gerard Horan, Conor MacNeill, Turlough Convery, Gerard McCarthy, Lewis McAskie, Olive Tennant, Victor Alli and Josie Walker   Distributor: Focus Features

Grade: B

Kenneth Branagh spent the first nine years of his life in Belfast just as The Troubles were erupting in Northern Ireland, and he uses his memories of growing up there as the basis for this touching if unquestionably manipulative portrait of a family forced to consider fleeing a hometown that’s becoming a war zone.

Branagh’s surrogate is Buddy (expressive Jude Hill, a real discovery), whose rambunctious play is savagely interrupted by the violence between Protestants and Catholics that suddenly erupts in his neighborhood during the summer of 1969, sending residents fleeing the street and hunkering down in their homes as windows shatter about them.  His father (Jamie Dornan) is away on one of his frequent trips to England for work, but his mother (Caitríona Balfe) and older brother Will (Lewis McAskie) have to cower under a table as the rocks fly.

Theirs is a Protestant family, which also includes Buddy’s paternal grandparents (Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds), who live nearby, but one of moderate views, wanting to live in peace with their Catholic friends and neighbors.  That doesn’t sit well with rabble-rousers like Billy Clanton (Colin Morgan), who want to drive the Catholics out by force, and when Buddy’s father returns from England on one of his periodic visits, Clanton pressures him to join in the rioting, saying “You’re either with us, or against us.”  The residents set up what amounts to a neighborhood watch committee that, in addition to the British troops sent in to try to quell the disorder, attempts to maintain calm, especially at night.  But the unrest continues.

That prompts the question that becomes the focal point of family discussion: stay or leave for greener—or at least more peaceful pastures—in England, a prospect that might also alleviate the financial strain of trying to pay off their debts.  Dad argues for the latter, but mother is reluctant to leave her home.

Buddy, meanwhile, doesn’t fully comprehend what’s going on around him—and the script doesn’t go to great lengths to explain the political realities of The Troubles, since it’s essentially portrayed from a nine-year old boy’s imperfect perspective (a fact that also explains some muddiness in Una Ni Dhonghaile’s editing.  Buddy visits his granddad and grandma for sweets and loving talk, and gets involved in puppy love with an amiable blonde classmate, Catherine (Olive Tennant).  He lets an older neighborhood girl named Moira (Lara McDonnell) lead him into trouble, which brings his mother down on him hard.  He listens to the minister (Turlough Convery) deliver sermons on making choices, but doesn’t place them in context.

He also finds some escape in the arts—obviously a foreshadowing of Branagh’s own future.  Even the grim, gritty reality of lower-class Belfast, reflected in the locations there and in London and Jim Clay’s production design as well as in Charlotte Walter’s costumes, is alleviated by the luminosity of Haris Zambarloukos’ black-and-white cinematography, which gives the bleak surroundings an aura-like sheen reflective of childhood memory; and the film suddenly turns into color when Buddy joins his grandma at a stage performance of “A Christmas Carol,” and other members of the family at showings of pictures like “One Million Years B.C.” (1966), with the sight of Raquel Welch in prehistoric duds, and “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” (1968), where the sight of a flying car lifts everyone from their seats.

One can rightfully complain that some of Branagh’s choices in this connection are too heavily on the nose.  One of the scenes we glimpse on TV is from John Ford’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, in which James Stewart screams about his town being filled with people who want to kill one another.  And the recurrent reference to “High Noon,” and use of Dmitri Tiomkin’s score, to emphasize the choice of staying or leaving, almost become risible.  More serious is the inclination to underplay the menace of the time in favor of a generalized sense of uplift amid destruction; it doesn’t go as far in that lamentable direction as Roberto Benigni’s “Life Is Beautiful” did, but doesn’t quite find the sweet spot that John Boorman did in his autobiographical picture “Hope and Glory”—one of Branagh’s obvious inspirations.

But while one can point out flaws, they’re outnumbered by the virtues.  Branagh’s affection for his characters shines through in both writing and direction, and the cast respond with performances of warmth and conviction.  Hill is unaffected and charming, and while Dornan is rather understated—perhaps too much of the Gary Cooper from “High Noon”—he carries off the final confrontation with Clanton steadfastly, even if the situation seems a bit melodramatic and contrived.  Balfe is more extroverted, making Ma a genuine force of nature.  And it’s impossible to resist the coupling of Dench and Hinds, even when their characters come perilously close to caricature.  They have a lovely moment when they enjoy an impromptu dance to “How to Handle a Woman” from “Camelot”—a show that is, of course, also about an unreachable realm of peace and happiness.  The score by Van Morrison is a further asset, adding as much local color as the supporting cast of neighbors and outsiders.          

“Belfast” is a memory piece that you’ll more than likely be pleased to have shared with the person who lived it, and it will make you appreciate even more what he’s achieved.