Kenneth Branagh’s “Belfast” is the likely next best-picture winner. What leads to this early prediction is the old method that the film you can sit anyone in front of and have them enjoy it is typically the one with the most votes.

Branagh has gone on record since the film debuted in early fall festivals, saying he has not seen “Roma” and the comparisons to the Oscar-winning film of two years ago are not valid. It’s true that “Roma” and “Belfast” are personal to their directors, take place during an impressionable and violent time in their childhood and also presented in black and white.

There are more similarities, but you get the idea. What’s more interesting is how they are different.

Branagh’s film is a sweet coming-of-age story that follows a joyous young boy played extraordinarily by newcomer Jude Hill supported by a cast that’s likely each to garner an acting nomination. It’s the kind of film that leaves you smiling while simultaneously wiping away tears.

In many ways, Buddy (Hill) has the perfect childhood. His entire family and friends live in a section of Belfast during the 1960s where everyone knows and helps one another. His mother (Caitriona Balfe) is strong willed and the real pants of the family. His father (Jamie Dornan) works hard, but on a job in London, keeping him away for most weeks.

Buddy’s time is split between school and learning about life from his Pop (Ciarán Hinds) and Granny (Judy Dench). What Buddy is forced to learn all too soon is the impending hate that’s creeping into his friendly neighborhood. The complicated issue of Protestant versus Catholic turns violent, spilling into Buddy’s world, throwing his life into chaos and his future in Ireland into question. The violence outside their front door has Buddy’s parents faced with the decision whether to stay or leave the country they love.

Branagh’s “Belfast” is an homage to his heritage, his family and country. It’s also the actor-turned-director’s strongest entry behind the camera after popcorn entertainment flicks “Murder on the Orient Express,” “Thor” and “Cinderella.”

While the film starts with striking color images of modern-day Belfast, it leaps over a wall taking us back to 1969 in black and white. Hinds, Buddy’s grandfather Pop, after decades of playing villains, mobsters and supporting roles, steals the film with a moving performance that might land his first Oscar nomination.

Dornan and Balfe also are wonderful in their roles as parents struggling to make the right decisions. Dench as Granny also is the perfect touch. The original script is full of innocent sarcasm and charming spirit that keeps a smile on your face nearly the entire picture.

Branagh uses classic Hollywood cinema as a moral detector for Buddy, a child who loves film at an early age and steals the audience’s heart from scene one. Classic films are embedded in the story, another technique Alfonso Cuaron used in “Roma,” although it’s more effective here. More so than the editing, it’s the film’s good timing that keeps it humming along.

While the film is quite good overall, it has an ending that’s beautifully executed, a message of acceptance and tolerance that recalibrates what you just saw, bookending a quite brilliant little film.

Final Thought: “Belfast” will charm your socks off, put joy in your heart and leave you wiping away tears.

Dustin Chase is a film critic and associate editor with Texas Art & Film, which is based in Galveston. Visit

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