Written, produced and directed by Kenneth Branagh, “Belfast” isn’t exactly autobiographical but chronicles a story and time that the actor and filmmaker knows well, as unrest involving hostility by Protestants toward Catholics roiled the boy’s close-knit community. The resulting tumult has caused a cash-strapped family to begin contemplating leaving, unsettling nine-year-old Buddy (newcomer Jude Hill), who wants to stay in a town where everybody knows his name.
“We’re living in a civil war,” dad says, finding his wife more resistant to leaving behind all that she’s known.
Beautifully shot, and sentimental without being saccharine, the film presents Buddy as a kid significantly influenced by American movies and TV, watching things like “Star Trek,” “High Noon” and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” from which he derives his sense of heroism and justice. (He’s also shown reading a Thor comic book, a sly reference to an earlier Branagh directorial effort.)
The cast is sensational, including a scene-stealing Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench as Buddy’s caring grandparents, with the boy spending a lot of time especially with grandpa as his parents struggle to get by.
Branagh has directed all kinds of movies over the past 30 years, from his frequent adaptations of Shakespeare to “Cinderella” and the aforementioned “Thor.” It’s perhaps appropriate, though, that his most personal film would also turn out to be his crowning achievement.
Thompson’s Irene, a doctor’s wife, has actually flirted with “passing” in order to spend time in White society, but she’s jolted when she reconnects with childhood friend Clare (Negga), who has taken the act to the extreme, living as a White woman and marrying a wealthy White man (Alexander Skarsgard).
Yet Clare’s discontent and sense of what she’s sacrificed becomes a growing issue as she begins to spend more time with Irene, at what appears to be significant peril should her deception be exposed.
In this case, shooting in black and white makes a statement that reinforces the film’s central tension, which is a world as seen in Black and White, with no shades in between. While the central performances, especially Negga, are terrific, the one drawback would be that the story moves somewhat slowly in getting back to Clare’s tale, which somewhat overshadows that of Irene — who is married to a doctor (André Holland) and primarily serves as an uncomfortable observer of this dangerous balancing act.
Hall captures how the two women chafe against the system and its limitations in different ways, and shoots the film with a haunting, almost hypnotic quality. That atmosphere, in a sense, is stronger than the story, but it’s more than enough to make “Passing” a movie that shouldn’t be passed by.
“Belfast” premieres Nov. 12 in US theaters, and “Passing” premieres Nov. 10 on Netflix. Both are rated PG-13.