When we look back on our past, whether it be a result of time, fading memory or both, we tend to oversimplify the emotions and experiences we had. Director Kenneth Branagh ('Artemis Fowl', 'Murder on the Orient Express') pushes tinting the past with rose-coloured glasses to its limit with his new coming of age film, 'Belfast'. The film, while personal and sweet, also calls to mind the experience of sitting inside on a rainy Sunday afternoon; it's cosy, but it leaves you feeling ultimately empty.
The semi-autobiographical film is told through the eyes of 9-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill, in his debut feature role), a stand-in for Branagh. It is the 15th of August 1969, and The Troubles are just beginning in Northern Ireland. A riot breaks out on Buddy's street in the opening act of the film, his Catholic neighbours being targeted with increasing hostility by Protestants. Buddy's Pa (Jamie Dornan, 'Barb and Star Go To Vista Del Mar') has just returned home from England, where he now works to help his struggling family make ends meet, suggesting his job is a chance for a fresh start away from the unpredictability of the violence just outside their door. Of course, Buddy, his Ma (Catriona Balfe, TV's 'Outlander') and his brother Will (Lewis McAskie) push back on the idea, preferring to weather the storm than leave the town that means the world to them.
If, like me, you are unfamiliar with the motivations around The Troubles, don't expect to learn much more through 'Belfast'; the violent conflict is simply boiled down to "bloody religion" on multiple occasions by different characters. In fact, 'Belfast' uses Buddy's first-person perspective as a means to conveniently skirt around explaining the religious and political intricacies of the conflict, ultimately putting a strange distance between his family and this core conflict in his upbringing. With the exception of a few key sequences, 'Belfast' is shot in crisp, timeless black and white, perfectly preserving the past as it were. There's no imbuing of hindsight from an older Branagh, or trying to understand the conflict from different perspectives; the closest the film gets is Buddy eavesdropping into small sections of conversation between Ma, Pa and his grandparents Granny and Pop (Judi Dench, 'Artemis Fowl' and Ciarán Hinds, 'Zack Snyder's Justice League'). Instead, the film would rather slam the brakes on whatever narrative progression is occurring for, say, an unnecessary but admittedly charming musical number.
The reason 'Belfast' gets away with being so narratively slight is because of this undeniable charm; soundtracked exclusively by the soulful music of Belfast native Van Morrison, much of the tension-free second act feels engineered to generate acting nomination reels for its extremely talented adult cast. While many have already commended Hinds, Dench and Dornan for their great performances, Balfe is absolutely the strongest here - a headstrong woman determined to keep her family together. At its core, 'Belfast' is a film about love of many different kinds, but the most compelling of these is Buddy's bourgeoning love for the stage and screen. The theatre becomes a regular source of solace for Buddy and his family, highlighted by Branagh presenting these films and performances in colour.
'Belfast' uses Buddy's first-person perspective to conveniently skirt around explaining the intricacies of the Northern Ireland Troubles.
After spending much of the 2010s as a major studio director-for-hire (these projects ranged from adequate to downright abysmal), it's a relief to see Branagh actually inspired by a project he clearly cares about, but 'Belfast' also suggests Branagh has developed a difficulty in sliding back his storytelling scale. For these previous projects, Branagh had been working with budgets of at least US$55 million - 'Belfast' was made for less than half of that at US$25 million - and the blockbuster filmmaking tendencies that slip into 'Belfast' muddle the tone of this otherwise very personal film. The staging of the riots, for example, as big action sequences, complete with an eleventh-hour save from Pa, feels far too polished. One could potentially chalk this up to Buddy's fondness for cinema impacting how he views the world, however this explanation feels just as implausible as the sequence of Ma marching Buddy back to a convenience store, mid-riot, to return a stolen box of laundry detergent.
'Belfast's' existence and execution make sense from a historical perspective; after spending the last two years in a global pandemic, many have used nostalgia (a tool weaponised now more than ever in Hollywood) to comfort them when the unpredictable future seems too much to bear. There is, however, a danger in thinking too fondly, too narrow-mindedly of the past, and in its very personal tone, 'Belfast' runs dangerously close to being a film for no one but Branagh himself.