**1/2 out of ****
(for some violence and strong language)
Released: November 12, 2021
Runtime: 98 minutes
Directed by: Kenneth Branagh
Starring: Jude Hill, Caitriona Balfe, Jamie Dornan, Ciarán Hinds, Judi Dench
Belfast is a decent movie with sentimental charm, but it also feels like it’s visually overcompensating for being, at heart, a stage play.
Shot in beautiful-if-excessively framed portraiture and, for good measure, black-and-white photography, the craft of Belfast earnestly endeavors to be Cinema. And granted, on balance, I’d much rather a movie fault towards that end of the spectrum than, say, the pretentiously uncinematic tenets of Dogma 95.
Nevertheless for Belfast, the result is an intimate coming-of-age story that feels packaged in too much movie-making artifice, thus creating a remove from that intimacy rather than enabling a poignant connection. The aesthetic is often a grand canvas, but more than what’s necessary or effective. One could easily envision this translating to simplicity of the stage, especially as some conversations play out at length in wide locked-down single shots, but more so in the tight geography of this one Belfast street.
Roma by way of The Wonder Years, the 1969-set Belfast is writer/director Kenneth Branagh’s semi-autobiographical tale of growing up in the Irish capital during the height of tensions between Protestants and Catholics. It’s a mostly nostalgic look back, but one tempered by the backdrop of the fiercely violent and destructive riots from that year.
Branagh’s on-screen proxy is Buddy, a 12-year-old boy and the youngest son of blue collar Protestant parents who simply want to raise their family in peace. Residing in a mostly-Catholic bureau makes that difficult.
The film is effectively told from Buddy’s point of view, both in narrative structure and visual perspective, but its more evocative moments come from the adults he observes, namely his parents Ma and Pa (Outlander’s Caitriona Balfe and Fifty Shades of Grey’s Jamie Dornan) and grandparents Granny and Pop (Brit legends Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds).
Inspired by Branagh’s youth though it may be, Belfast feels more formulaic than personal. From childhood antics to first-time crushes to magical trips to the movies to idealized Christmas mornings (and how it’s all set to a Van Morrison driven soundtrack), Belfast seems co-signed by studio execs whose marketing notes have been dutifully followed.
As Buddy, newcomer Jude Hill exudes the requisite wide-eyed, precocious exuberance, but it’s all coming-of-age surface. What’s lacking is a melancholy and confusion that’s necessary to make the role richer, and the movie deeper. The loss of innocence never feels wistful here, just pro forma.
To the degree that Belfast resonates it’s in Caitriona Balfe’s portrayal of Buddy’s mother, a woman who holds this family together even as she’s tested by circumstances on every front, including her marriage.
As most of the ensemble suitably play their parts (including Jamie Dornan, who’s husband/father is good but not uniquely compelling), Balfe progressively meters Ma’s emotions as they become frayed by dynamics that either escalate or crumble. Keeping it together becomes increasingly difficult, and Balfe reveals that burden with a raw veracity.
It may be too much to say that Ma is the soul of the film (she’s not on-screen enough for that), but to the extent Belfast has a soul, it’s in her. Balfe has a conviction the rest of the movie earnestly aspires to but only mimics.
Dench and Hinds do stalwart work as well, especially in the moments they share, and to a degree that I became more interested in seeing these events from their perspective rather than the boy’s. In their moments, Belfast feels real, not staged. Otherwise, its artful efforts are akin to the live action equivalent of flipping through an old photo album.
I’ve no doubt Belfast was a sincerely personal project for Branagh, but it feels like it could’ve been made by anyone.