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Kenneth Branagh's 'Belfast' shows the Troubles through the eyes of a 9-year-old


British actor and director Kenneth Branagh has played English kings and German SS officers, detectives both French and Swedish, a Danish prince and even an American president. So it may have escaped your notice that Branagh hails originally from Northern Ireland. His latest film, "Belfast," finds him behind the camera as writer and director. Critic Bob Mondello says even if you didn't know the story was mostly autobiographical, you would still call it his most personal film.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: The streets of Belfast, 1969 - kids playing in a mostly Protestant section of town, 9-year-old Buddy brandishing a trashcan lid and a wooden sword as mom calls him in for dinner.



UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Hey, Buddy. Your mom's calling you.

JUDE HILL: (As Buddy) Yeah.

MONDELLO: And then their world changed.


BALFE: (As Ma) Buddy.

MONDELLO: A car bomb rocks the neighborhood. Soon, there are tanks and British troops outside, and paving stones have been ripped up for barricades, revealing to Buddy's astonishment that the solid, stable street he's been playing on was built on a bed of sand. When a unionist enforcer comes by threatening Buddy's dad, it feels as if that sand is shifting.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) We're looking to cleanse the community. You wouldn't want to be the old man out in the street.

JAMIE DORNAN: (As Pa) You touch my family, and I'll kill you.

MONDELLO: Grown-up conflicts notwithstanding, for Buddy, life goes on. He gets caught swiping candy at a corner store, moons over the smart blonde girl at school and consults with granny and gramps, both about the girl and about a class assignment on the moon landing.


CIARAN HINDS: (As Pop) Did those boys not come back from that?

HILL: (As Buddy) They did. And now we have to clip things out of the papers and explain how they got there. If I could come up with something smart about that, maybe I could stay up at the top desk (ph) and wait till she gets back there.

HINDS: (As Pop) Or you could say the moon's made of green cheese and drop down a place (ph).

JUDI DENCH: (As Granny) Or you could do the project together, you and the young lady.

HILL: (As Buddy) But how do I even talk to her?

HINDS: (As Pop, singing) How do you handle a woman...

MONDELLO: Writer-director Kenneth Branagh, who was just about Buddy's age when all of this was going down, lets us see the troubles through the eyes of his 9-year-old stand-in but also see the hardships adults are protecting him from - Ma holding things together while Pa works construction jobs in England and zips home just for weekends, which suddenly seems not enough. When he is offered a management job, Pa sees a way out for all of them.


DORNAN: (As Pa) There's a house that goes with it. We get it rent-free with a chance to own it if things go well - a wee bit bigger than what we have here, a room for each of the boys. There's a big garden, too.

HILL: (As Buddy) Are you allowed to play football in that garden, Daddy?

DORNAN: (As Pa) Aye, son. If I say yes, there's more money straight away.

BALFE: (As Ma) It sounds like they really want you. What do you want?

DORNAN: (As Pa) I want my family with me.

MONDELLO: Filmed mostly in lustrous black and white with a few bursts of color when the family escapes to the movies, "Belfast's" story is steeped in sentiment, lots of mood setting, Van Morrison on the soundtrack and sharp performances surrounding Jude Hill's wide-eyed, adorable Buddy. Grandparents Ciaran Hinds and Judi Dench...


HILL: (As Buddy) My ma says if we went across the water, they wouldn't understand the way we talk.

HINDS: (As Pop) Shouldn't be a problem. I've been married to your Granny for 50 years. I've never understood a word she said.

MONDELLO: And standing out from all the doughy, normal faces, Buddy's impossibly good-looking Ma and Pa, Caitriona Balfe and Jamie Dornan - because what kid at that age doesn't think his folks are movie stars?


BALFE: (As Ma) I know nothing else but Belfast.

DORNAN: (As Pa) Exactly. There's a whole world out there.

MONDELLO: A world that Branagh's made it a point to explore in more than 70 films. In this one, he lets us in on how his family and Irish grit and shifting sands came together to let him do that. I'm Bob Mondello.


LOVE AFFAIR: (Singing) Where life really flows, no one really knows till someone's there to show the way to lasting love. Like the sun, it shines. Endlessly it shines. You always will be mine. It's eternal love. Whenever love went wrong, ours would still be strong. We'd have our very own everlasting love. Real love will last forever. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.