“For it to really work, the movie can’t ever break from an intimate connection with these people and their lives, and Branagh is too complacent here, overconfident in the belief that the inherent emotional significance of this story is enough.“
by Ken Bakely
The thing about Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast, as a viewing experience, is that it goes down astonishingly easy – it floats by, soft and wispy, with little capacity of leaving a real impression. This can’t have been the point. Branagh pieces together handsomely crafted moments like excerpts from diary entries, sometimes spliced together at the points where they can certainly deliver fine and emotionally potent moments; but at others, the whole project is so lightly imagined that it seems he’s aiming for little except dragging us along on anodyne stroll down memory lane. Set in the titular city in 1969 as The Troubles erupt, the film follows Buddy (Jude Hill), a nine-year-old boy who lives with his mother (Caitríona Balfe), brother (Lewis McAskie), and grandparents (Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds), while his father (Jamie Dornan) is often out of the country for work, and is considering moving the family as well as the situation back home rapidly deteriorates.
It’s as simple as that: these characters and ideas form the basis for the film’s patchwork structure, showing snippets of daily life through Buddy’s perspective. It’s abundantly clear that Branagh is drawing directly from his own life story here – even if you didn’t know he was born in Belfast and his family did indeed move to England in 1969 – because of how little heft he gives the material. He doesn’t feel the need to add to what’s happening because it’s perfectly apparent to him – why should he feel the need to give Buddy any further character traits beyond being rambunctious, loving movies and plays, and fearing change, when one typically doesn’t parse their early childhood memories of themselves or others on the basis of their perceived depth or variety of perspectives? Belfast is a movie that can be resonant and sincerely heartfelt, reaching above the time and place of its setting to search for some more universally accessible observations on growing up, but only insofar that they’re general experiences and emotions that connect with everyone in some way. As the writer and director of an intensely personal story, he shouldn’t be expected to nor be asked to distance himself from the material, but within his framework – of scattershot memories, where traumas and triumphs and big moments and small ones all blend together – there’s little to reach for beyond the immediate power of the anecdotes themselves.
It’s good, then, that Branagh has assembled and directed a cast that is so well-suited for this film. The nature of Belfast is that the performances have to work in smaller, contained pieces – the characters have to communicate what they mean to each other through a gradual collage, rather than in big scenes and moments. Certainly, the veterans of the supporting cast, like Dench and Hinds, are welcome, sturdy presences throughout, even if their scenes are relatively brief, but Hill, even as a young newcomer, is able to bring good spirit and energy to the otherwise lightly-drawn Buddy. More memorable still are Dornan and Balfe, who are given some of the movie’s most difficult work as Buddy’s parents. Balfe, in particular, is wrenching as Ma, a woman of extraordinary commitment – to her city, to her family, to herself – who feels squeezed into an impossible situation where suddenly these factors seem to no longer be compatible; that to make the right choice for her own family might mean upending the familiarities of her life and cutting away from the deep ties she has to her community. She carefully examines the conflict and anguish in a deceptively quiet performance, and so vivid is her understanding of this character that when she does receive one of the film’s few big monologues, it almost feels redundant in hindsight – the words she speaks only seem to re-emphasize everything she’s already told us.
With these fine performances, there is certainly much to respect about this film, and perhaps it underlines an inherent beauty to the idea, yearning to paint a portrait of an uprooted childhood that eschews the self-conscious Big Moments. But for it to really work, the movie can’t ever break from an intimate connection with these people and their lives, and Branagh is too complacent here, overconfident in the belief that the inherent emotional significance of this story is enough. But as Roger Ebert observed, what matters is not what a movie’s about, but how it’s about it, and Belfast can’t connect its emotional soul with its oversimplified, rambling approach. There’s a disconnect that slowly picks apart the movie’s own abilities – perhaps exemplified, though not to say caused by, Haris Zambarloukos’ cinematography. Mostly black-and-white, what seems to be a fairly transparent ploy to visualize the warm blanket of nostalgia that Branagh drapes everything in only abstracts the movie more: conscientious splashes of color make it feel gimmicky, and the camerawork itself is strangely asynchronous – cool and distant – pushing us a little further away from the characters it’s framing as they live their lives.