In his beloved director’s twinkling-eyed childhood memoir, reality is not mentioned.
Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast is a movie about the Troubles that isn’t really about the Troubles at all. It is based on a childhood diary, which has been meticulously crafted to be an Oscar frontrunner, and it covers the winter months of 1969, when sectarian violence rocked Northern Ireland. It’s now known as the start of a three-decade conflict, with wounds still far from healed.
The Troubles is primarily about the central dispute, which pits two parents against one another as they make the most difficult decision of their lives: do they abandon Belfast and the only home they’ve ever known in order to safeguard their two young kids? They are a Protestant family who live in a majority-Protestant neighborhood without causing trouble with their Catholic neighbors. But for some, not taking a side is tantamount to choosing a side. The fire and shattering glass are indiscriminate.
Despite all of this, there is a lopsidedness to Belfast’s perspective, which comes out just as skewed as the Dutch angles that Branagh has used as a director. Buddy (Jude Hill) serves as a proxy for Branagh’s own childhood self while witnessing events through the eyes of his father, who becomes increasingly hard-hearted and abusive. Every time Buddy climbs into the seat of a local auditorium and looks up in awe at a showing of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang or A Christmas Carol, the movie reverberates with enthusiasm. Above all, Belfast exists to show how its director, who would one day become that multi-hyphenate British artist known for his exuberant interpretations of Shakespeare as well as his over-the-top performances in the Harry Potter movies, was born there.
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Buddy’s early exposure to the arts is depicted in ecstatic bursts of color, just like his parents’ love. These sequences imply that Branagh’s youth spent immersed in the arts allowed him to gaze into his own future following a prologue accompanied by the bluesy music of Van Morrison, which is the only other use of color. Although the film is set in Northern Ireland, it does not have an overwhelming sense of importance about it. In this way, Belfast feels precious yet a little insubstantial. The movie superficially resembles Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma, which revisited the director’s childhood in Mexico City through the eyes of his family’s one-time domestic employee. But these films’ souls seem to inhabit separate planets. Branagh doesn’t appear to be as concerned with delving into his own memories or grappling with how a child’s sheltered life behind their parents’ protection can shield them from reality as Cuaron was.
Buddy, a young student in search of freedom, finds himself in the small-town British community where he befriends an older troublemaker. He’s eager to join up with his new buddy on all manner of adventures that will surely test their bravery and sense of adventure. The film’s finest sequence is one in which father croons “Everlasting Love” while mother dances in the warmth of a spotlight. Buddy’s grandparents, meanwhile (Judi Dench and Ciaran Hinds), have been married for so long that they now appear to operate in perfect unison – they dance and sing as well, while dispensing advice with the kind of majesty that only actors like Dench and Hinds can deliver.
The real discussion – violence, religion, identity, and politics – is presented in brief bursts. And genuine hatred is far too easily simplified into a single straightforwardly nasty figure (Colin Morgan). There’s an air of artificial neatness about Buddy’s environment: the ground appears to have never been walked on; gates that have hardly been touched by passers-by. That’s easy to comprehend, since Branagh chose to film on a studio lot rather than a genuine city due to the epidemic. But it may be better for his vision of Belfast – one that is more focused on the lives we lead rather than the ones we can dream about in the silver screen.
Directed by: Kenneth Branagh
Written by: Kenneth Branagh
Starring: Caitríona Balfe, Judi Dench, Jamie Dornan, Ciarán Hinds, Colin Morgan, Josie Walker, Jude Hill
Release dates: 2 September 2021 (Telluride), 21 January 2022 (United Kingdom)
Running time: 97 minutes
Country: United Kingdom
Movie Rating: 4/5