By Joanna Langfield

Like the city it loves, Kenneth Branagh’s semi autobiographical film has its troubles.

Set in the Northern Ireland of the 1960’s, of course the story of a young boy’s childhood is set against the backdrop of the civil war that tore Catholics and Protestants apart. Carefree games are interrupted by marauding gangs; integrated neighborhoods erect walls to protect themselves from firebombs. The innocence of youth is a tough thing to maintain and yet, set to some all too on the nose Van Morrison songs, there are days like this. Branagh, who is an extraordinary actor and accomplished director, tries to balance the light with the very, very dark but surprisingly, slips more often that I would have expected.

Young Jude Hill carries most of the piece on his 10-year-old shoulders and does so handily. Caitriona Balfe is a beautiful presence as his mother and lucky for us, Jamie Dornan, who pops in and out as the father, gets to serenade us in between all sorts of stress. While the war scenes are very well staged, the only moments of sweetness that got to me were when young Buddy spends some time with his grandparents, played with just the right touch of love and grit by the inimitable Judi Dench and a really terrific Ciaran Hinds.

Sentimental and strife-filled, it’s the lighthearted scenes that fall flat. Maybe it is that war on your street isn’t funny. And maybe it is that even when life tries to go on, we should feel that bit of terror that’s always in the air. But whatever warm and fuzzy moments show up here, they too often feel calculated, inserted to keep us charmed. Maybe some stories should just give it to us straight and trust the audience to care about characters that need it.