Leading up to the release of his new movie, writer-director Kenneth Branagh has said that it took him nearly fifty years to figure out how to properly tell the story of his childhood in 1960s Northern Ireland. In the modestly scaled, monochromatic Belfast, we see such turbulent childhood play out, but it makes one wonder if Branagh should’ve maybe waited a little longer. In broad material, this may be the most “personal” film in the up-and-down career of the classically trained stage and screen veteran. But however autobiographical the material, Branagh approaches it from a odd remove: He’s made a memoir that’s tenderly nostalgic in the broad strokes without ever locking the audience into an emotional perspective. It’s like thumbing through an old photo album and struggling to conjure any specific feelings about the images, even the ones you’re intimately in.
We open on August 15, 1969, the day “the troubles” came to Belfast, engulfing the capital city of Northern Ireland in violent conflict. Branagh first sets an idyllic scene, of children laughing and playing in the streets. Before a car explodes, and in floods an armed mob of loyalists and rioters, shattering the peace and innocence of the quaint, idealized Belfast the filmmaker has plucked from his memories. The particular young one witnessing this history in the making is nine-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill), aka Branagh’s adolescent proxy and the film’s intersection point of the personal and the political. Buddy, the youngest of two sons, comes from a Protestant family, but his parents have no interest in fighting with the Catholics. His father (Jamie Dornan), who leaves the boys in the loving but sometimes exasperated care of their mother (Caitriona Balfe) while he’s away on business in London, resists the increasingly threatening with-us-or-against-us appeals of Belfast’s loyalist contingent. If the film has a political conscience, it’s his almost relaxed “Can we all get along?” philosophy.
From there, Belfast moves at a wobbly ramble. It keeps the encroaching chaos of the troubles mostly in the background; showdowns in the street and ransacking of local businesses are granted no more significance than Buddy’s nagging crush on a Catholic classmate — a choice that gives the movie a choppy rhythm and shrewdly acknowledges the way that headline news of the adult world can disappear into a child’s day-to-day, eclipsed by minor playground melodrama. For advice, the boy turns to his grandparents, played by Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench, both fitting nicely with the opportunity to go small and ordinary, to portray founts of working-class wisdom. Branagh remains an ace with his actors: In Balfe, he locates both a toughness and a glamour and Dornan exudes the humane decency and warmth unlike anything he’s ever done before. Everyone seems at once grounded and a little larger than life — the right approach for how we remember the figures that loom over our formative years.
With all these aspects, it might make one wonder if this is Branagh’s Roma? While both movies are memoirs in varying black-and-white, the similarities end there. Belfast‘s directorial control and sense of immersion is no where close to that of Alfonso Cuarón’s 2018 film. For all the specificities of that time and place that are delivered, Branagh renders it with a curious lack of real, lived-in texture. It’s unsurprising to learn, if you couldn’t tell while watching it, that the movie was largely shot on a street set (the pandemic made filming in the real Belfast too difficult), which may explain the overly pristine look of its cobblestoned streets and row house interiors. Branagh, not often an intuitive composer of images, frames the action and conversations from eccentric angles that scatter the film’s visual language. It’s a restless, fussy shooting strategy that occasionally flirts with intention; one could rationalize all the voyeuristic shots through windows and doors as a representation of how children eavesdrop on adult drama. Just as often, though, it’s merely messy — in part because there’s no consistent sense of point of view behind Branagh’s unusual framing and there’s just something flat and inexpressive about vast chunks of the images, scrubbed of grit and buffed to a sharp digital gloss.
Only when dipping into Buddy’s adventures does Belfast threaten to actually adopt the boy’s outlook, to close the distance between us and the way Branagh might have seen the world at that age. Trips to movie and stage theaters become intrusions of color in this black-and-white world, the actors on stage or screen granted a full palette to suggest the way these Saturday matinees sparked Branagh’s developing imagination. The music, on the other hand, seems only regionally specific: It’s basically wall-to-wall Van Morrison, a shortcut to mass nostalgia trips. To its credit, Belfast is never glaringly sentimental: It’s just too off-kilter in its staging and editing to go full sappy in its depiction of a boy’s coming of age against the churn of history. The tradeoff, though, is that the film seems always on the outside looking in, stranded in some unaffecting dead zone between the growing pains of country and child. Branagh dedicates the movie to the survivors of Belfast, to those who left and those who stayed. Yet by the time Buddy’s family makes their own tough choice about which of these paths to follow, you realize that he and his family have never really been sketched out nor has the reality of their situation. The Belfast of Branagh’s past and of his mind hasn’t made it to the screen intact. Visually scattershot and choppy structurally, Belfast looks to reawaken the best and worst of childhood and country, yet fatefully renders itself broad and muted.
Belfast is playing Theaters nationwide