Caitriona Balfe, Jamie Dornan, Judi Dench, Jude Hill, and Lewis McAskie in Kenneth Branagh's Belfast; photo courtesy of Focus Features

Kenneth Branagh has been avoiding Belfast for his entire career. He seemingly came out of nowhere, directing and starring in Henry V before he turned 30, all in a rush to become his generation’s Laurence Olivier. Hamlet and Othello helped confirm that status—unlike Olivier, he had the good sense not to portray the Moor of Venice—and each additional project glossed over his relatively modest upbringing. Belfast, however, is a rare personal film from Branagh, an autobiographical portrait of a working class Protestant family stuck in The Troubles, and it benefits from insight that only comes with age. By keeping the story squarely from the point of view of his young protagonist, we can see how bittersweet memories form even as civil unrest tore the city apart.

It is August 1969, and roadblocks are going up in the neighborhood where Buddy (Jude Hill) lives. His parents (Caitríona Balfe and Jamie Dornan) do not want to get involved, except they must take a side now that Protestants are trying to drive Catholics out of the neighborhood. Despite all the turmoil, Buddy’s life is pretty ordinary. He has a crush on a girl at school, and wants nothing more than to play, go to the movies, and spend time with his grandparents (Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds). Still, the situation grows untenable, particularly since Buddy’s father leaves for weeks at a time for his job in England. The film depicts how the family slowly understands they have no choice but to leave the only home they have known.

Branagh’s script offers some insight into the strain within Buddy’s family, but he crucially keeps it fractured. Like a kid eavesdropping on his parents, we only hear snippets of what worries them. Belfast recognizes how kids thrive on routine: It is frightening when violence happens on the street where Buddy lives, but soon enough he walks through the resulting checkpoints without a care in the world. In fact, the disruption of routine is the only time Buddy really gets upset. He sees his grandparents as dependable, for example, and when his grandfather goes to the hospital, his absence registers more than the underlying sickness. That is not to say Belfast is an immature film, but rather it internalizes the limitations and possibilities from childhood.

The formal constraints of the film are where it finds sentimental notes. Branagh and his cinematographer, Haris Zambarloukos, shoot the film in black and white, creating a sense of unreality that erases the separation between the past and present. There are some flashes of color, and Branagh uses them to suggest the man Buddy would become: When his family goes to the movies they are in vibrant color—a way to underscore their profound influence. The music only strengthens that sense of nostalgia. There are many Van Morrison tunes, and his soulful voice smooths over some awkward scene transitions. All this culminates in a scene where Buddy’s father serenades his mother with “Everlasting Love,” an incomplete performance that—through shrewd editing—preserves Branagh’s heroic, albeit incomplete memories of his father.  

The limited point of view is also what helps the performances achieve a poignant quality. All the adult actors say and do things beyond Buddy’s understanding, so the effect is that we better understand what is happening than our point of entry. Balfe is best known for the TV series Outlander, although her presence here suggests she could become a real star. Buddy’s mother is the film’s moral center, a position that comes with its risks, like a scene where she tries to teach Buddy a lesson in the midst of a literal riot. Still, the real standout performances come from Hinds and Dench. “Beloved grandparents” are a familiar archetype, especially for a film like this, but the veteran actors deepen that archetype through a specific kind of world-weary wisdom.

Although the kids in Belfast are aware of The Troubles, this is not a political film. Any kind of nuance about relations between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Island would violate the conceit of Branagh’s perspective. At one point, Buddy confesses his crush to his father—she is Catholic—and the father solemnly intones that her background should not matter. That must have offered some relief to Buddy, except Branagh now has the wherewithal to see his parents are not immune to naivete (if his father actually believed that, he might have stayed in the city). Even if Belfast was filmed in color, Branagh is too shrewd to look at his early life with rose-colored glasses. Not all the time, anyway.

Belfast opens in area theaters on November 12.