It’s a very hard-headed film director who can resist the temptation, sooner or later, to tell the story of their childhood in exhaustive detail. Maybe it’s the closest thing we can have to a time machine, carrying us back to a beautifully art-directed and better acted version of our past.
That’s the problem. Very few film-makers are tough enough to be brutally honest about their own loved ones.
One notable exception was the wonderful Roma, made by Alfonso Cuaron. But he had the good sense not to put himself in the centre, instead making a film about his beloved family housekeeper.
But Belfast sees a 10-year-old version of Kenneth Brannagh – lightly fictionalized as Buddy – at a very specific time and place. The street where he lived in August 1969.
The opening shot is almost too good to be true – Buddy and his friends playing in the streets, in immaculate black and white – why is memory always rendered in black and white?
There are grownups on their doorsteps, cups of tea in hand, gossiping about clothes and football. And then it all changes.
A gang of thugs smash up the neighbourhood on the pretext that the few Catholics who live in a predominantly Protestant street should be ejected – violently if necessary.
It’s the start, we’re told, of the euphemistically-named “Troubles”…
But it’s clear that Brannagh, who wrote as well as directed Belfast, isn’t particularly interested in documentary accuracy. This is a love letter to his youth and particularly his family.
There’s immaculate builder Dad – Jamie Dornan – forced to spend much of his time over the water in England, trying to pay back his tax arrears.
There’s glamorous Mum – the lovely Caitriona Balfe– who has two roles. She’s the fierce Celtic Tiger Mother, who’ll do anything for her two boys, Buddy and Will, and she’s the loyal wife.
Will she stand by her man when he decides they may have to leave the old home town?
And there are Granny and Pop. Judi Dench is as good as always, and I suspect the main reason for the long queues at my local cinema.
But even better – to my mind – is the great Ciaran Hinds as Buddy’s grandfather. He’s the heart of the film, and he also does a nice job disguising the occasional cheesiness of the lines Brannagh has handed him.
Brannagh might have been advised to get a real writer in to polish the script, which suffers a little because Sir Ken can’t quite bring himself to be unkind to any of his characters.
The best moments are almost accidental. Buddy being lured by his teenage cousin into trashing a shop and being left holding a packet of washing powder. Pop’s impromptu quotes from Camelot…
And – I’m sure, most significantly – Buddy’s regular visits to the fillums with his family. Westerns like High Noon and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. Family entertainments like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – providing the only colour in a mostly black and white film.
You could complain – and later I did complain – that Belfast, despite the copious awards and nominations, is too soft-hearted for its own good. What might directors like Ken Loach or Stephen Frears have made of this material – possibly because it isn’t their beloved early childhood?
But it’s Brannagh’s heart-on-his-sleeve approach that makes Belfast what it is.
Young Jude Hill as Buddy is very endearing, playing him as an Ulster Charlie Brown from Peanuts, complete with a thwarted romance with a little Catholic girl in his class.
And the glamorous Dornan and Balfe finally conquered my resistance, lip-synching and dancing to Love Affair’s ‘Everlasting Love’ in a scene set in a “this never happened” 1969 karaoke bar at the end.