Belfast is a perfect film.
You know that Belfast is a perfect film because writer/director Kenneth Branagh insists on showing us its perfection in every camera shot, framed sublimely and focused in such a way that whatever Branagh's focus is at the momen is enveloped in a practically angelic halo.
Of course, there's nothing wrong with perfection per se. There's nothing wrong with pristine lensing and emphasized framing.
In some ways, I suppose, there's nothing particularly wrong with Belfast.
Belfast is, in fact, a good film. However, Belfast is a good film always reaching desperately for greatness and reaching with such complete and utter enthusiasm that one's immersion in the film is hindered by Branagh's absolute insistence that we understand, no truly feel, every moment and every shot and every word and every nuance with as much nostalgia and intimacy with which Branagh obviously carries these childhood memories of his own Belfast upbringing.
Belfast is Branagh's most personal film to date and it wears that nostalgia on its cinematic sleeve. It's completely unsurprising that Belfast captured the People's Choice Award at TIFF and is nominated 11 British Independent Film Awards. Belfast is awards season fodder in the same way that 2018's Green Book made us think it was saying something important when it was really just entertaining us.
There's nothing wrong with entertainment. Belfast could have accomplished so much more.
I have a strong feeling that most audiences will absolutely love Belfast, though those of us who watch more films in a year than most people watch in a lifetime will likely recognize it for what it is - a good film that deserved greatness and yet another example of Branagh's artistic integrity getting in the way.
Truthfully, nearly everything I didn't appreciate about Belfast falls squarely in Branagh's lap. Branagh's a gifted director, though he's also a stage actor and director and there are far too many moments in Belfast that feel excruciatingly staged. The cast? They're sublime. This is an absolutely terrific ensemble and despite Branagh they manage to bring Belfast to life in extraordinary ways.
Newcomer Jude Hill is the cornerstone here, Buddy in the film but we all know standing in for the real-life Branagh. He's a movie loving lad with a loving ma (Caitriona Balfe) and Da (Jamie Dornan) along with his older brother (Lewis McAskie) and the grandparents with whom he spends his afternoons after school (Judi Dench, Ciaran Hinds). It's only a few minutes into Belfast when it becomes apparent that Buddy's idyllic Belfast neighborhood is about to explode as the Catholic/Protestant tension is about to boil over and threaten the Northern Ireland way of life. This is, of course, based upon real events that never feel quite so real here because Belfast is more concerned with nostalgia than any nasty ole' conflict.
To be fair, Branagh has no obligation whatsoever to overly emphasize the political underpinnings of his childhood story. Belfast is not about "The Troubles" but about the way that Branagh's childhood survived and thrived through them. Belfast waxes eloquently precisely because Branagh does have, despite the trauma of being surrounded by civil conflict and formerly decent men becoming indecent, treasured memories of childhood and neighbors and family and friends.
Belfast hits all the nostalgia notes - from fiercely protective Ma to life-changing conversations with Da to innocent flirtations and first love with Catherine (Olive Tennant) and the list goes on. Yet, it's the film faux perfection that gets in the way of ever really bonding with the story and its characters. By de-emphasizing the civil strife, there's less urgency as Da contemplates moving his family to greater safety in England while Ma fights to maintain the family home in this troubled land that she still calls home. Oh sure, we get scenes of conflict. They are vividly brought to life yet often feel like fragments. The film's greatest potential for depth and meaning comes from the presence of Colin Morgan's Billy Clanton, an aforementioned good-hearted neighbor turned vigilante practically overnight. However, the Billy Clanton branch never really grows and never really feeds the story as much as it should.
Jude Hill is the true revelation here in capturing all the wide-eyed innocence of childhood amidst circumstances most of us can't possibly understand. Hill is a newcomer whom we will undoubtedly hear from again and again. The other film's truly stand-out performance comes from Caitriona Balfe as Ma, though unnecessary camera close-ups try to force unearned emotions. Balfe is a ball of domestic fire here, family protector and caught between her own nostalgia and the family's needs. Two-time Razzie winner for those godawful Fifty Shades films, Jamie Dornan finally lives into his acting potential as Da, a pacifist whose unwillingness to pick sides ends up threatening his family from both sides of the conflict. Ciaran Hinds is a warm and wonderful gem, though Dench isn't given nearly enough to do.
Filmed mostly in black-and-white with occasional, and very intentional, exceptions, Belfast looks pristine yet never elicits the emotional resonance that childhood nostalgia demands. Branagh tries to feed us those emotions rather than allowing us to discover them for ourselves.
The use of Van Morrison music throughout Belfast makes sense, though the musician's own incessant political rantings mute any sense of nostalgia from his otherwise pleasant music that includes one new tune and, quite fortunately, no hint of "Brown-Eyed Girl."
I am, I will confess, absolutely burdened by the fact that while most people will see no more than a dozen or two motion pictures at the most during 2021 I have, in fact, seen hundreds of them despite the challenges of pandemic-influenced viewing. My somewhat lesser opinion of Belfast is not because I'm a film journalist but because I'm a film lover who watches an almost insane amount of films each and every year. The only true award-worthy performance here is that of Balfe, though I wouldn't necessarily gripe to see young Jude Hill appropriately recognized.
Belfast is a good film that deserved to be a great film because, alas, it birthed the life and creativity of one of contemporary cinema and stage's great artistic voices in Kenneth Branagh. While Belfast may not be quite all I wanted it to be, it's a warm and nostalgic look at the things that nurture and empower us and the memories that never go away.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic