Director: Kenneth Branagh
Stars: Ciarán Hinds, Caitríona Balfe, Jamie Dornan
Branagh’s directorial career has some chaotic energy but, if it is defined by anything, it’s an abundantly populist intent. His 1994 take on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein dipped madly toward the inklings of Grand-Guignol, but still cosied things up in the glossy aura of a Royal Variety Performance. Recent efforts have included Marvel’s first foray with Thor, a live-action Cinderella flick, tours with Agatha Christie and a Jack Reacher sequel I’ve never even heard of. For all his Thespian airs, the work is for all, and Belfast goes some way to explaining his urge to play so broadly.
Drawn from his own experiences growing up in the titular city in 1969, Belfast is a nostalgic look back at Branagh’s own working class background, abutting the violence of the city’s religious schism with cosy, inconsequential soap opera drama. Evidently his was a childhood of bustling and neighbourly terraces, where no cars ever drove and everyone knew everyone else by name. His mirror self is Buddy (Jude Hill); a budding young scamp who reads Marvel comic books and loves going to the movies; heavy-handed pats on the back for Branagh himself.
Buddy is mostly baffled by the rioting and looting suddenly going on at his doorstep, and little effort is made by anyone to properly explain the thorny politics of the times. Thus, Belfast presents itself as blithely apolitical. Complexities are shrugged off with breezy irreverence. Working class folks have no time or impulse to make such enquiries.
Buddy’s father (Jamie Dornan, irksomely credited as ‘Pa’) works in England and so is defined as an absentee, though his efforts garner the family an opportunity to escape the escalating civil unrest. Buddy’s mother (Caitríona Balfe, irksomely credited as ‘Ma’) feels inexorably tied to the community. Thus the film’s nominal dramatic underpinning finally asserts itself. At all others times, Belfast presents as a focus-free sludge of inconsequential anecdotes and blandly delivered universal truisms. So frequently trifling and inane, it makes the slim 98 minute running time feel considerably longer.
It’s evident that Branagh caught sight of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma and decided he wanted a piece of that action, either to legitimise his largely dismissed directing career, or to lend this autobiographical tale a sense of gravitas. But the efforts are transparent and he has neither the poetic vision nor enough material to warrant the comparison. Belfast offers next to nothing beyond corny sentimentality, syrupy life advice from Buddy’s grandparents (Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds, irksomely credited as ‘Granny’ and ‘Pop’) and occasions of outright plagiarism (seen Cinema Paradiso? So has Branagh!). By the end of the first act it’s clear Branagh has nothing to say beyond indulging his own personal nostalgia. Once that’s become clear, the rest is just a matter of tolerating it. Haris Zambarloukos’ monochrome photography lacks inspiration, never quite justifying the formal choice. Like everything else here it just feels like a stolen indulgence.
A couple of the actors manage to imbue Branagh’s trite dialogue with something approaching naturalism. Hinds is the film’s best resource in this regard, while Balfe’s commitment to ‘Ma’ manages to tether the little she has to some kind of emotional truth. These positives are undone elsewhere, however. Dornan is dependable but, by the nature of the character, only ever an occasional presence. Dench is a puzzling choice who makes almost no impact on the film and, unfortunately, young Jude Hill lacks the sense of ability his elders have had time to hone. It’s no fun punching down and saying a child actor is shit. But he is.
This spurious advert for Northern Irish pride feels awkwardly torn in its actual intent, thanks to the relentless depiction of the city as a dead-end hole that you would have been mad to live in at all. Branagh’s glossy tourist board shots of modern day Belfast fixate on a rehabilitated port district and show nearly nothing of the people who thrive there today. The rest of the film plays like a cloying, overlong Hovis advert that romanticises the shortcomings and prejudices of the past into something schmaltzy and conservative. Another one for ‘the people’? Doesn’t feel like it. Belfast reveals itself as pure, hollow awards bait. Safe, cowardly and utterly irrelevant. A mawkish chore to sit through.