Belfast is a cloying ode to innocence that tells you exactly how it wants you to feel in every shot, every frame, every needle-drop. Director Kenneth Branagh has spent years in franchise wilderness (Artemis Fowl being one of the hardest rock-bottom arrivals of a major director in the past few years), and this represents his return to something more personal and operatic. I like Branagh and I’m sympathetic to celebrations of his escape from bad big-budget projects, but … come on.
The film introduces us to Buddy (Jude Hill), a spunky and imaginative kid in 1960s Belfast whose innocent view of the world is constantly encroached upon by the reality of the civil war raging all around him. It’s the time of the Troubles, the conflict between Catholics and Protestants that emerged from the complicated political history of North Ireland. His family — Pa (Jamie Dornan), Ma (Caitríona Balfe), older brother Will (Lewis McAskie), Pop (Ciarán Hinds) and Granny (Judi Dench) — are Protestants. Pa’s job may allow the family to escape Beflast to England, but the promise of safety comes with the price of abandoning their home and heritage. That pressure, though, falls primarily on Ma and Pa: Buddy just wants to go to the movies, hang out with his grandparents and maybe go on a “date” with the cute girl at school.
It’s immediately apparent that Branagh may be telling a small story, but his taste for visual largesse hasn’t shrunken a bit. Within the first scene, we witness an exploding car from multiple angles. Intimate scenes throughout are shot from above, around and in extreme close-up. It’s not that he needs to be boring; his over-dramatic style has frequently bettered his worst efforts, like the unintentional homoeroticism in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. But a pretty consistent element of the director’s non-Shakespearean work has always been to use the camera as a tool of his own expression whenever he’s not on the screen. He does not let you forget he’s there, running the show. That works sometimes. It does not here.
Comparisons to Roma are just unbelievable: They’re both showy black-and-white pseudo-autobiographies, but unlike Alfonso Cuarón, Branagh lacks the patience to get out of his own way. Buddy is supposedly his fictional stand-in, but the director is always there reminding you of his presence.
Technique aside, though, Branagh’s screenplay has some difficulty as it see-saws between scenes of whimsical childhood longing and the increasingly difficult politics of 1960s Belfast. Perhaps this is because Buddy’s life is not, frankly, remarkable in any sense. He goes to movies that inspired the director; he talks to his Granny and Pop, who are basically cardboard-cutout “wise, loving, bickering grandparents.” Pop worked in the coal mines, and you know exactly what that means when he delivers that line of exposition with a cough. For all the awards patter about Dornan and Balfe, the former was better this year in Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar and the latter, following up her turn in Ford v Ferrari, does her job amicably enough in a rather thankless role. Thankless, I guess, except for the big moment where Pa tells her she did a great job raising their kids.
Belfast is sure to be a crowd-pleaser. It’s an uncomplicated biopic that hits the right beats. The meta-narrative of Branagh’s “redemption” speaks to the awards-season crowd and has just enough recognition with wider audiences to probably tip the scales for the film. Unfortunately, it’s just an annoying, unexceptional film from a director who tells it using all of his old tricks and all that entails.