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belfast review
A young boy comes of age in 1969 Belfast.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Kenneth Branagh

Starring: Jude Hill, Caitríona Balfe, Judi Dench, Jamie Dornan, Ciarán Hinds, Colin Morgan

belfast poster

After spending the last decade directing traffic for Hollywood, Kenneth Branagh has taken advantage of a pandemic enforced gap in mainstream film production to knock out a more personal film. Belfast is said to be based on the filmmaker's childhood in Northern Ireland, but it plays more like a movie inspired by other filmmakers' movies about their childhoods. It may be set in one of the scariest times and places Europe has seen in the past 50 something years, but as black and white movies go it's notably rose-tinted. The Troubles have never been portrayed as less troublesome.

belfast review

Branagh opens his movie with a full colour tribute to the town he left as a child. The fact that it resembles a tourist board commercial, showcasing the city's most obvious landmarks, is an early suggestion that Belfast probably doesn't hold the place in Branagh's heart that his film would like you to believe. I doubt any filmmakers emotionally invested in the city would populate their movie's soundtrack entirely with the thuddingly obvious choice of Van Morrison songs.

When we cut to black and white and a title card tells us it's August 1969, we're still not entirely convinced. Little effort has been made to capture the period. The digital photography of Branagh's regular DP Haris Zambarloukos has an unmistakeably modern sheen. The sets are suspiciously immaculate, as are the face and exposed knees of the film's main character, young Branagh surrogate Buddy (Jude Hill), the cleanest nine-year-old ever to play in the streets of an Irish city. The city's Protestant community is given a little too much credit for getting along with their Catholic neighbours, with just a few bad elements responsible for the divisions. In parts you get the impression that Branagh is confused about when his movie is set, like when Judi Dench claims she saw 1937's Lost Horizon in the cinema as a child, which would make her character a forty-something in 1969. A cinema audience reaction to the flying car of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is more befitting those in attendance at the first screening of L'arrivée d'un train en gare de La Ciotat.

belfast review

Belfast takes an episodic approach to its storytelling. Lacking a distinct narrative thrust, the movie feels like it was directly adapted from a wall of post-it notes in Branagh's office rather than from a fully developed script. Young Buddy gets into a series of bland and unoriginal scrapes while his supermodel parents (Jamie Dornan, Caitriona Balfe) debate whether to move to England or stay put. In a bizarrely under-developed plotline, Buddy's older brother (Lewis McAskie) is taken under the wing of Loyalist paramilitaries. Elsewhere we hang out with Buddy's charming grandparents (Dench, Ciarán Hinds) as they spout learned wisdom to the boy.

Every now and then a car explodes or a shop is looted, but for most of Belfast's running time you would be completely unaware it was set during what was close to a civil war. This would be fine if the movie were presented entirely from the point of view of Buddy. When you're a kid you tend not to be affected by the horrors carried out by adults, as you're too focussed on your own life dramas. A movie that understands this is the recent Lebanese drama 1982. Like Branagh's film it's focussed on a child living in a tumultuous time and place, but it never sugar coats things and when we're in the company of its adult characters we're all too aware of the stakes. Even the adults in Belfast don’t seem all that bothered by the Troubles. Buddy's "Pa" argues the case for a move to England primarily by dangling the carrots of indoor toilets and a back garden to his wife, who doesn't want to leave the city she's spent her life in, rather than, you know, reminding her that their kids are growing up in a war zone.

belfast review

To some degree, Belfast gets by on its undeniable charm and the strength of its performances. Younger international audiences unfamiliar with the dynamics of the Troubles will likely prove more receptive than those of us old and close enough to have grown up with the horrors of Northern Ireland playing out on our nightly news. For the latter, Branagh's choice to score a ludicrously over-the-top moment of potential violence with the theme from High Noon will make us wonder just how familiar he really is with the land of his birth. Few Irish filmmakers would make such a crass decision.

 is on UK/ROI VOD now.

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