Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast is a nostalgic and surprisingly upbeat portrayal of his own early life in Belfast during the Troubles. Set to be an Oscar contender with a handful of heavy-hitting dramatic powerhouses at the helm, Branagh’s semi-autobiographical coming of age story, does by no means deal in subtlety. The film follows 9-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill), and the tough choices he and his family are faced with as their close-knit community erupts into sectarian violence.
The story mirrors Branagh’s early life and explores his own memories and personal connection to the city at this time. In examining his own childhood and memories of the conflict, Branagh provides a somewhat compelling family drama, however one with little depth, nor insight, into this tumultuous period of Irish history. The film is a surface level recollection of these childhood memories. There is little to no substance in Branagh’s account of the violence, with a general tone of an inconvenience rather than sorrow. The film holds a rose-tinted, and unconcerned outlook on the events occurring at large.
The film is painted with broad strokes. The passionate and stagy nature fits well with the earnest portrayal of a family that truly cares for one another. However, it is almost unconscionable in its portrayal of the Troubles. The choice too, to have the film in black and white, seems almost paradoxical as there is not an ounce of grit to be found throughout the entirety of the runtime. The conflict itself is boiled down to a few stylised set pieces and one cartoonish villain. Despite being at the heart of the film, Branagh finds very little to say about the Troubles. Attempting to simultaneously explore the conflict while keeping it firmly at an arm’s length, generalising the action to the point at which the film could have been set anywhere.
It is, however, in the smaller intimate moments, that the film shines. Caitriona Balfe (Ma) provides a phenomenal performance as the matriarch of the family. Combining both humour and a heartbreaking resilience to portray a woman trying her best to do right by her family. Similarly, the charm to be found in everyday family interactions is unavoidable. Particularly from Ciarán Hinds (Pop) and newcomer Jude Hill (Buddy). They both help to elevate the film to its highest and most affable points.
Seeking to have his cake and eat it too, the film unfolds as more of a biopic of the director than a meaningful account of the era. At times feeling closer to a half-remembered panto than a historical memoir. With a few evocative needle drops to be found throughout, I find it hard to believe that one of the 9 Van Morrison songs couldn’t have been left on the cutting room floor in favour of a tad more character development. That being said, out of all of the Best Picture nominees, this is the one to take a parent or grandparent to. For those who lived through the conflict, this could prove a more palatable retrospective of a discerningly turbulent and murky time in our history. While a heavily polished and easy to swallow narrative, the charm and emotion is palpable and genuinely effective at the film’s heights. Making the film worth seeing, if not just for the stellar performances.
Samuel Kennedy- Film & TV Writer