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Kenneth Branagh triumphs with memorable and moving “Belfast”


(1) Newcomer Jude Hill plays 9-year-old Buddy. (2) Buddy’s parents Pa (Jamie Dornan) and Ma (Caitriona Balfe) consider moving to England, where Pa works as a joiner.

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4K Ultra HD (digital), Blu-ray, 2021, PG-13 for some violence and strong language; streaming via Amazon Prime Video (4K), Apple TV (4K), Vudu (4K), YouTube (4K)

Best extra: The alternative ending with commentary by director/writer Kenneth Branagh

CRITICS ARE a peculiar breed. Exhibit A: Some actually took issue with “Belfast” for not

“contextualizing” or “coming to grips” with The Troubles, the sectarian violence that ripped Northern Ireland apart for three decades beginning in the late 1960s.

Ignore them. Writer/director Kenneth Branagh (“Henry V,” “Thor,” “Murder on the Orient Express”), an Oscar nominee in both categories, didn’t have a treatise in mind. As he says in the feature “A City of Stories: The Making of Belfast,” “I felt it was time to tell a personal story of my family’s experiences” during that dark chapter in Irish history. “Belfast,” which is up for seven Oscars, including Best Picture, triumphs at every turn.

The B&W cinematography by Haris Zambarloukos, who’s collaborated with Branagh on seven films since “Sleuth” in 2007, is gorgeous. The score by the great Van Morrison, the Belfast-born Celtic Soul Man – and a nominee for Original Song (“Down to Joy”) – is note-perfect.

(1-3) Buddy reacts as a mob storms his street and terrorizes the homes of Catholic families. (4) Ma rescues him from the riot. (5&6) The mob torches a car as one of its leaders warns the families.

And every performance is just wonderful, especially those of Supporting Actor and Actress nominees Ciarán Hinds (“Munich”) as Pop and Judi Dench (“Shakespeare in Love,” “Skyfall”) as Granny. Their easy chemistry attests to the “sense of family” that Branagh sought and his cast brought to the set. No surprise there: Most have roots in Ireland and some were born and raised around the corner from Branagh.

About that set. Shooting began at the height of the pandemic, and though Branagh initially scouted the city for locations, he decided instead to build an entire block rather than uproot families and businesses and compromise safety protocols. Right, an entire block. Hats off to production designer Jim Clay (“Children of Men”) and his crew. Building from scratch, Branagh says, served two purposes: This corner of Belfast is specific to how it looked when he was 8 years old in 1969 and it’s how Buddy sees it.

Buddy, by the way, is played by first-timer Jude Hill, and he’s a natural. We share his idyllic life with his Ma (Caitríona Balfe, “Ford v Ferrari”), Pa (Jamie Dornan, “A Private War”) and brother Will (Lewis McAskie); his confusion when his Catholic neighbors are assaulted; his joy when his family escapes to the movies; his infatuation with his classmate Catherine (first-timer Olive Tennant); his terror when he’s swept up in a riot; and his angst when his family considers leaving Belfast. His scenes with Hinds are not only priceless, they ring true regardless of ancestry.

(1) Buddy and his brother Will (Lewis McAskie) take cover under a table. (2) The neighbors build barricades on both ends of the street. (3) Ma is questioned by a British soldier as Pa, who is returning from England, tries to pass through the checkpoint. (4&5) Back home, Pa confers with his father Pop (Ciarán Hinds) at the back of their row house. Hinds is nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.

VIDEO/AUDIO Branagh sums up the appeal of “Belfast’s” (1.85:1 aspect ratio) imagery in a wide-ranging and relaxed commentary (make time for it). While B&W cinematography imbues period stories with a sense of grittiness and authenticity, he says, that’s “at odds with the fact that that’s not how we see the world. We don’t watch the world in black and white.” But as other filmmakers have shown, he adds, it can also be “tremendously gripping in the way it can take you into a sort of poetic dimension.” There you have it. The Blu-ray (1080p) is stunning – the picture is nothing short of dynamic — but the film was mastered in 4K and was released digitally in that format. Odds are that a 4K disc is forthcoming. That should be a treat.

Zambarloukos and Branagh captured the drama with the ARRIRAW (4.5K) digital camera and the HDR10 and Dolby Vision results are more dynamic. Overall the toning is darker, with expanded highlights and mid-tones, especially with the dark and stormy clouds over Belfast. Plus, the added resolution is evident with distance signs and fabric textures.

The 4K digital is coded with the eight-channel Dolby Atmos soundtrack, while the Blu-ray get the 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix. Both deliver an open soundstage, but the uncompressed Blu-ray track has a fuller bass and clearer highs. The often-intimate dialogue is never lost, the trauma in the streets is enveloping and Van the Man’s score positively crackles.

(1) The television provides the latest news of the unsettling violence in Northern Ireland. (2) The 4K clarity is excellent, especially in the close-ups. (3) Buddy is schooled by his cousin Moira (Lara McDonnell) on the meaning of first names. (4&5) Pa is confronted by Billy Clanton (Colin Morgan), the leader of the Protestant gang. (6) The family goes to the movies and sees “One Million Years B.C.” starring Raquel Welch.

EXTRAS As advertised, Branagh’s commentary is a must and “A City of Stories” is way better than most making-of features. There are also deleted scenes and “Everyone’s Inner Child,” a fun short in which Hinds, Dench, Balfe and Dornan talk about their favorite food and toy and the naughtiest thing they did. But the alternative ending is especially revealing. It would give away too much to say what it is, but Branagh does says that folks who read his script were about evenly divided between those who wanted the film to end as it does and those who wanted to learn, well … more. By all means, decide for yourself. Craig Shapiro

(1) Buddy watches his would-be sweetheart Catherine (first-timer Olive Tennant) from across the street. (2) Pa leaves again for two weeks to work in England. (3) Buddy reads his favorite comic book. It’s a subtle nod to the Marvel Cinematic Universe film that Branagh directed in 2011. (4) Buddy is swept up in the maelstrom when the rioters loot a grocery store. (5) Outraged that he stole a box of laundry powder, Ma protects Buddy after she drags him back to the store to return it. (6) Pa and Buddy visit Pop in the hospital. His lungs are failing from working in the coal mines. (7) Granny (Judi Dench) worries that she may lose Pop. Dench is nominated for Best Supporting Actress. (8) Pa shares another life lesson with Buddy.




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