Starting off on a positive note, Branagh brings his absolute best directing game to cinema, for what feels like the first time in ages. One hoped he would choose to film another Shakespeare adaptation, and yet he insisted on the likes of Thor, Murder on the Orient Express, and - most regrettably - Artemis Fowl. Some of those movies are better than others, and yet his best cinematic work in the last two decades appears to be his supporting performances in Tenet and My Week With Marilyn. However, Branagh has snapped back to form in an admirable fashion. There were some scenes which I could not even believe he directed. The subtlety! Shots that invoke Bergman or Malle, or even Welles, appear sporadically and spontaneously. Branagh has always staged his camera as if the audience was watching from a stage, but in Belfast, there are moments when he really embraces the cinematic form.
Of course, the very concept of Belfast is naturally inviting to Branagh. Donning rose-colored lenses, he guides us through his childhood experiences growing up in Northern Ireland during The Troubles. More often idyllic than not, the film nevertheless opens with a bang: nine-year old Buddy (the debuting Jude Hill) has been called home by his mother for afternoon tea, and on the way back, encounters a gang of violent Protestants hurling Molotov cocktails around the minority-Catholic neighborhood. A little while later, he attends a sermon by a bombastic minister, telling him that he has a choice in front of him which is literally the difference between heaven and hell. Everyone wants to know what side he will fight with during this religious war. A bit heavy-handed, but it’s easy to imagine that the impact of this speech has been exacerbated in Buddy’s mind.
Similarly, it explains why Buddy would see his parents as Caitríona Balfe and Jamie Dornan, Branagh making them look like royalty even as they’re mired in debt up to their knees. There’s also probably something to be said on how he visualizes his grandparents as Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds; but, no offense to them, they don’t move quite as nimbly as Balfe and Dornan. Of course, this movie is, to a certain extent, more focused on the woes of Buddy’s parents than the boy himself. His mother is running herself ragged raising two boys in the midst of community strife, while his father is living and working on the other side of the Irish Sea and rushing home on weekends. With the amount of debt the family finds itself in, he has no opportunity to try to shift closer to home, despite his wife’s frustration regarding his absence. Naturally, she essentially finds herself running the household on her own.
Balfe is the heart of the film. More known for her work in television, this film should catapult her into contention for an Oscar; she will likely enter into, and may win, the Best Supporting Actress category. She commands every scene she appears in. Effortlessly blending into the family unit, her warmly protective nature towards her sons and more aggressive interactions with her husband give her broad dimensionality. She dotes on Buddy, but is quick to discipline him as well. Recognizing the dangers of growing up during The Troubles, she tries to give her boys the most normal childhood possible, while sternly stepping into any situations which may turn them onto the wrong path. Dornan provides solid support to her, proving himself capable of more emotional depth than previous roles have given him the chance to demonstrate. The two of them certainly meet tropes of the past: the wife stays at home, raises the kids, and maintains the house while the husband is the breadwinner. Yet, the film recognizes these archaic fetters for what they are, and ensures that everyone in the film as well as those watching it understand who drives this family forward. The father may be earning money to work off the debts of the past, but it is the mother who is making every relevant decision regarding the future.
Jude Hill puts forward an apt performance for a performer of his age, communicating especially well with Dench and Hinds’ characters. When the three of them are together, the audience is allowed a brief moment of respite from the otherwise tumultuous and fast-paced events of the film. Belfast is surprisingly short - Úna Ní Dhonghaíle maintains a tight clip from beginning to end. The only elements which disrupt the pacing are all the theatrical experiences Buddy encounters. Some of them are moderately well-directed, like their family outing to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, but for the most part, they come off as contrite. Branagh allows these scenes to be in color, which just makes them feel a tad bit too saccharine. It’s understandable, to a certain extent. If Belfast is based on Branagh’s own life, it would make a certain amount of sense to include his early fascination with cinema. However, it still feels like Branagh could not execute the translation to film in an entirely flawless manner. Some moments feel alienating while others feel too personal.
It would be remiss of me to not mention the best component of the whole affair: Van Morrison! The Belfast native contributes several classic songs to the film and somehow feels like the absolutely perfect device to tie everything together. He aptly thrusts you back through time to the era of The Troubles, and strikes the perfect note of nostalgia and melancholy. In the most memorable sequence of Belfast, Jamie Dornan belts out a striking cover of ‘Everlasting Love’ to his wife, who gazes adoringly at him whilst owning the dance floor, and it suddenly makes perfect sense how these two people, as younger counterparts to themselves, had once fallen in love and decided to spend the rest of their life together. So acrimonious has their relationship become that it boggles the mind: where did they begin, and how did they end up here? And of course, that’s the exact point of the film. This young, luminous couple might have had a very different life if they had grown up in another place or time; yet if they had, they might not have had such electric chemistry together. The love goes hand-in-hand with the pain. I might have even been amenable to a lengthening of this sequence, where we could have lingered on this exquisite note of tenderness for a moment longer. Then again, perhaps its effervescence is what gives it such luminosity.
In the end, Belfast serves as a reminder of how effective Kenneth Branagh can be as a storyteller. Not everything in the film works, but it definitely does feel like Branagh understands this instinctively himself. The movie could have been better only if it had been less true to its screenwriter’s own memories. This is merely a shortcoming built into the decision any director has to take when he chooses to tell his own biography. A biopic, with the distance its director maintains with the material, can often feel more authentic and true to the cinematic art form. An autobiography substitutes this emotional clarity with a more personal perspective. For all its perfection and imperfection, Branagh nails the period setting. Buddy’s family and their interactions with each other feel immensely relatable. We all can find people in our own lives who resemble Ma, Pa, Granny, and Pop. Does that justify its artistic thinness? It will depend entirely on the perspective of whoever watches it. Either way, Belfast most certainly does serve as a fascinating look into the mind of one of the greatest filmmakers of his generation.
Score: ★★★½ / ★★★★★