This review was made possible by the Twin Cities Film Fest.
It’s a truism of storytelling that the purpose of stories is to translate individual experiences into universal ones, to take the personal thoughts and feelings of the author and use a story to converse with an audience. At its most basic level, Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast seems to be taking this ethos directly to heart, translating Branagh’s own childhood into material for mass consumption and hoping to communicate his nostalgic feelings for his hometown of Belfast, Ireland, despite the violence he experienced while living there.
However, Branagh’s hopeful conversation with his audience never achieves much more than that singular basic goal, resulting in an assured crowd-pleaser that still fails to make the same sort of impact these experiences must have had on Branagh himself.
The cynical take would point out the stylistic similarities to Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma and consider Branagh’s attempt to be an attempt to translate his own life into Oscar gold, but in spite of a similar penchant for portraying an autobiographical past in stark monochrome, Belfast shares much more cinematic DNA with A Christmas Story than any of its contemporaries. Though Branagh thankfully passes up the opportunity to wax lyrically over his remembrances via voiceover, his person is represented in the 9-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill, in a precocious introductory performance) circa 1969.
The film opens with Buddy caught in the middle of a riot, a not uncommon occurrence as tensions rise between Catholics and Protestants, though for folks like Buddy’s family, the violence is more concerning to their safety than the dominance of any one religious sect. True to Buddy’s childish perspective, however, he is more concerned with catching the attention of a girl at school (Olive Tennant), getting pulled into petty robberies by his cousin Vanessa’s (Nessa Erikson) gang and getting life advice from his Granny (Judi Dench) and Pop (Ciarán Hinds). These incidents aren’t quite presented episodically, but are rather interwoven with one another, held together by a running throughline of Buddy’s financially stressed mother (Caitríona Balfe) and perpetually absent working father (Jamie Dornan) disputing whether it would be best if they left Belfast for better security and safety.
This does mean that the film’s underlying perspective is largely anecdotal, and while that does provide a basis for humorous one-liners, dramatic speeches and occasional gestures toward how Buddy’s experiences weren’t unique among the Irish who ultimately fled their homes, there ultimately isn’t much of a story being told here. Most of what could be considered the plot plays out in conversations and arguments that Buddy simply overhears, but not until the climax does it feel like any characters or events are driving events or conflicts forward. There’s a sense of dramatic reenactment to most scenes, a stagey interpretation of Branagh’s childhood sense memories that add up to a meaningful whole but are so inwardly focused that it’s still most meaningful to him.
You see this most explicitly in scenes dedicated to Buddy’s obsession with cinema and live theater, where the film does away with the artifice of black and white memory and portrays the actors in vibrant technicolor, almost as if the magic of the performing arts holds even more sway over Branagh’s recollection than his own family. It’s an aesthetic choice that, albeit interesting, comes across more as a pat reiteration of the “magic of cinema” that will surely play well to Academy voters come time for nominations and it stands out against Haris Zambarloukos’s otherwise serviceable cinematography. And that’s to say nothing of the film’s overall editing, which feels rushed and scattershot in a manner that likely replicates Branagh’s childhood recollections but only builds the semblance of a story through implication.
The earlier comparison to A Christmas Story is not an idle one, as both films are characterized by a rough outline of childhood nostalgia that lacks narrative cohesion but gestures toward an implied greater meaning. It’s the perfect kind of film to play in the background on cable, to let yourself get pulled back in by the spotlight moments for the performers — Balfe and Hinds being the standouts in this case, no matter what the For Your Consideration campaigns may tell you. But Belfast lacks the kind of play to traditionalism that encourages such repeat viewings. It’s not a bad film, nominally entertaining in the moment and not without its moments of hilarious charm, but it’s a largely insubstantial one.
A final series of title cards dedicates the film to the people of Belfast, and sure, that’s peripherally what the film is about. But Belfast seems a lot more about Kenneth Branagh dramatizing his own memories without much thought put forth to expanding upon their context, which in turn makes the film largely feel as though it were written by his 9-year-old self. And for as interesting of a writing exercise as that may be, it leaves the film wanting for a bit of maturity.
Belfast opens theatrically on Nov. 12.