A semi-autobiographical coming of age story from writer/director Kenneth Branagh, set in Belfast, Northern Ireland during the 1969 “troubles”.
“Buddy” (Jude Hill) representing Branagh’s proxy, plays happily with the kids in the street, simple pleasures, kicking balls, play fighting with his wooden sword and dustbin shield. Incidentally, Buddy’s family Ma (Caitriona Balfe), Pa (Jamie Dornan) and elder brother “Will” (Lewis McAskie) are Protestants, although the street houses both Catholic and Protestant families.
Commencing with a colour introduction of modern Belfast, the camera’s gaze slowly traverses to a terraced street and fades to monochrome, a palette which remains for most of the running time. Later as the family attends the local cinema, colour creeps back in, only highlighting the black and white existence, in every sense, the family lead.
Viewers are pitched head first into the “troubles”, a typical downplayed Irish euphemism for the vicious sectarian violence that beset Northern Ireland for decades. The early scenes depict a Protestant mob terrorising Catholic inhabitants with fire bombs, beatings and vandalism.
The street responds by creating road barricades, carefully monitoring each entry and egress via volunteers who quite literally, man the barricades.
Buddy’s close knit family are introduced, helped by his much loved grandparents “Granny” (Judi Dench) and “Pop” (Ciarán Hinds), they all look out for him whilst his Pa works away in England for weeks at a time.
The unfolding story is seen through the young eyes of “Buddy”, who fails to understand why people are fighting, when days before they played happily together.
Forced to attend church, Buddy endures a Protestant pastor working himself into a fire and brimstone lather, preaching to the congregation on different roads they might choose. “One will take you to the horrors of hell, the other to the redemption of heaven”, he advises. Post sermon, Buddy remains confused as to the correct fork in the road to take.
The relationships between the family, especially Granny and Pop are delicately played, both Dench and Hinds with many acting years to their credit, play to their strengths. Ma and Pa’s relationship already struggling under gambling debts, is further strained as the violence ebbs closer and the impact on Buddy becomes more obvious, leading to a “biological” detergent and “Turkish Delight” smash and grab.
The film rests largely on the young shoulders of Hill and he does not disappoint, wide eyed innocence being his speciality, with only occasional lapses of just repeating lines. Balfe provides solid acting support as long suffering Ma, trying to hold the small family together.
Somewhat inevitably sentimental in places, yet set to a strong Van Morrison imbued score, the troubles are largely kept off screen. However the underlying threat remains ever present, guiding the families decision on future plans.
Branagh signs off with “to all those that left, all those that stayed and all those that were lost” which is a suitable epitaph to this period of history.
Hugely enjoyable and already a film festival favourite with “Oscar” paying attention.
Whilst a slightly harder edge might have elevated the film to classic status, this remains an entertaining and largely heart warming tale for the target audience.