Belfast

In his autobiographical film Belfast, writer-director Kenneth Branagh has a lot to say about the transporting power of movies, Star Trek, and the loveliness of a smart girl in one’s classroom. The movie is filmed in nostalgic black and white except for the opening and closing images and whenever we get a peek at whatever movie is playing at the cinema when the young hero Buddy (Jude Hill) is brought there. One such trip finds Buddy and his family taking in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and the effect of the flying car swooping off a cliff and into the oceanside air makes everyone lean forward in their seats. In his own films since 1989, Branagh has chased that intoxicating mix of awe and engagement, and has sometimes caught it. But he doesn’t do it here.

As it happens, Belfast — told through the eyes of nine-year-old Buddy — has little to say about Belfast. It seems a humble place where everyone knows each other; a chorus of chipper voices alerts Buddy when his Ma (Caitríona Balfe) calls him in for tea. But it’s also a place increasingly riven by tensions between Protestants and Catholics; Buddy and his family are the former, and his Pa (Jamie Dornan) is under pressure from local louts to take a (violent) stand against the latter. Pa has also been offered work, and a better house, in England. Ma doesn’t want to leave. After all, their lives are in Belfast, as well as Buddy’s grandmother (Judi Dench) and ailing grandfather (Ciarán Hinds). 

What the place doesn’t have is specificity; some of the movie was actually filmed in Belfast, but it might as well be a backlot. (Reportedly, the family’s street was built for the production on an airport runway.) Branagh is competing here with some heavy hitters even in relatively recent years — say, Neil Jordan’s The Butcher Boy (1997) or Alan Parker’s Angela’s Ashes (1999). Those films (and the books they came from) found unstable comedy or unbearable tragedy — on occasion both at once — in the traumas of the Irish childhoods in which they immersed us. Branagh’s Belfast feels lightweight other than the early set-piece of rioters’ chaos, which in itself just seems like an event to get our attention quickly. That attention soon dissipates when we’re asked to focus on tribulations not particular to the Troubles — the father running afoul of the tax man; Buddy trying to get his maths grades up so he can sit next to his beloved.

Branagh may be saying that despite the unique clashes of Belfast, it was largely peopled by folks who worried about the same things most of us do (in addition to fretting about being in the wrong place when the bricks flew). But if we go to Belfast hoping for insight into how a little Belfast lad went on to glory in theater and film, eventually being knighted, we may leave empty-handed. About the only hints of Branagh’s future endeavors are a quick shot of an Agatha Christie novel and an eye-rolling bit with Buddy leafing through an issue of Thor (Branagh has directed movies in both universes). The theme song from High Noon seems to cast a longer shadow over Branagh’s memories than Shakespeare. 

I wasn’t hoping for Easter eggs here — more like elements that would have made this resound as Branagh’s Belfast rather than anyone’s Belfast. The incidents here, including a sequence in which Buddy nicks a box of washing powder from a store in the throes of looting, feel remote and anodyne. To us, the wrestling over whether to leave the increasingly explosive Belfast isn’t a struggle at all — get the hell out. Instead of making us mourn the city, Branagh resorts to making us mourn for poor old Judi Dench left on her own. Aside from a charming little dance between her and Ciarán Hinds, Dench is kept too steadily in the background to embody the land, its joys and discontents. (The movie is generally uptempo, scored as it is with the rambunctious hits of fellow Belfast boy Van Morrison.) But Caitríona Balfe takes over, as mothers in Irish tales often do, and it’s she whose sadness makes the strongest case for the continuity of place. All Branagh can do is make us yearn for a time when a poverty-stricken family of five could still afford a matinee show.

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