Based on writer/director Kenneth Branagh’s childhood growing up in Belfast, Northern Ireland in the dangerous and unpredictable late 60’s, this semi-autobiographical tale deals with a small town torn apart by religious differences and told through the eyes of a young boy.
Buddy’s (Jude Hill) is only 8-years-old, but he’s seen enough to age any boy into adulthood fast. Growing up Protestant and in a working-class family in the middle of a mixed Catholic/Protestant neighborhood shouldn’t be a problem, but in Northern Ireland in 1969, it was a HUGE thing. After a terrorist attack on his street, Buddy learns to adapt and soon puts the events out of his mind, after all, he has more pressing issues to think about. . . like getting to know the pretty girl (Olive Tennant) he sits next to in school and going to the movies. That, and his rambunctious cousin Moira (Lara McDonnell), keeps trying to get him into her gang; first with a humorous initiation and later with almost lethal consequences.
It’s a good thing Buddy can always get advice from his loving grandparents (Dame Judi Dench and Ciaran Hinds), but even they can’t stop Buddy’s workaholic father from constantly leaving home to find more work. Y’see, his struggling dad (Jamie Dornan) is so busy trying to make ends meet and satisfy an outstanding tax bill, that he’s hardly home. His older brother, Will (Lewis McAskie) is rarely there, too, but his mother, (Caitriona Balfe), is the only one that keeps things on an even keel, despite the hardships in the hood and all she’s personally enduring. By the end, she goes into full mama-bear mode to protect her young.
A glimmer of hope comes for Buddy’s dad with the promise of a solid job, more money, and a new home in England as more riots break out on their block, making their departure tenuous. This is Branagh’s (Thor, Much Ado About Nothing) most personal film to date and the closest thing to a film noir he’s done yet. With his stark use of black & white textures, beautiful use of camera work and technique, and unique blending of light and shadows, it’s a shoo-in for a Best Cinematography Oscar this year for cinematographer Haris Zambarloukas.
The story doesn’t stay on track, rather it slices up choice tidbits of Buddy’s life into choice, almost chaotic scenes, that juxtapose the constant dark skies above. This kid’s life is filled with turmoil, humor, confusion, tedium, fear, school crushes, and his enduring love for his family who want only the best for their children, given their unstable neighborhood. And the remarkable, rock-solid performance of newbie actor Jude Hill is a major find. This youngster conveys so much in not only his line delivery, but his non-acting style; it’s as if he’s not even aware he’s being filmed.
Rounding out the impressive cast are: Dornan and Balfem, who are extraordinary as the battling & beleaguered mom & dad, while their parents, Dench and Hinds, are equally wonderful. McConnell is also great as the bad influence Moira, as is the scene-stealer, Turlough Convery, the hellfire & brimstone minister, who looks as though Jack Black and Ricky Gervais had a child. Add to this a bunch of swinging, jazzy-blues 60’s songs, and this movie has strong Oscar potential written all over it from the director to the actors to the technical end. Try not to miss this film!
**Now showing in selected theaters