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REVIEW: ‘Belfast’

There's a lot of love here. Not a lot of story.

• November 13, 2021 4:58 am

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There's no reason to criticize Belfast, writer-director Kenneth Branagh's autobiographical film set at the outset of the sectarian civil war that wracked Northern Ireland for decades. It's a loving depiction of a loving childhood about a loving child with loving parents and grandparents, and that's nice to see. There are wonderful performances here and the evocation of 1969 is enchanting.

But there's always a "but," so here's the "but": There's really not much to Belfast. It is in no way deepened, made more haunting, or made more powerful by its evocation of the Troubles as they were experienced on three square blocks of Belfast. Branagh wants to show us the growing violence through the eyes of Buddy (Jude Hill), the nine-year-old child he was, so sorting through why it was happening or what was being done about the Troubles doesn't enter into it.

He and his family are Protestant, but are completely without bias or hostility when it comes to Catholics or Catholicism. Indeed, their own minister threatens Buddy with hellfire, while he is thrilled by the idea of a religion so easy (in his eyes) that you could go and confess and be forgiven and then go right back to sinning. But this brief description I've just offered you actually goes a little deeper into the clashes of faith than the movie does as a whole.

The most interesting and unconventional aspect of the story is that the safety of Buddy's family is not jeopardized by Catholic thugs but rather by a Protestant neighborhood bully who demands their fealty. But even here Branagh can't quite get up the filmmaking necessary to make you feel as though the characters are in any real danger.

The child's-eye view makes it similarly difficult to understand or come to grips with the marital troubles between Buddy's parents, which bounce around between issues involving unpaid taxes and unspecified gambling debts. It would seem that Buddy's father is fiscally irresponsible at best. But as played by the very likable Jamie Dornan, he seems far more like Andy Griffith than Oscar Madison. And while I think we're supposed to see Buddy's mother as a tough but slightly cold person in a rage with her feckless husband, Branagh still sees her through rose-colored glasses and has cast the dazzling Caitriona Balfe (the star of the bodice-ripping time-travel series Outlander) to make her almost goddess-like.

So yes, Branagh adores his parents, and that is shot through every frame here, but it doesn't give the rest of us much to work with. The same can be said of his grandparents, limned here by the legendary Judi Dench and the ought-to-be-legendary Ciarán Hinds (best known for playing the chief of the Wildlings in Game of Thrones). It would be an understatement to describe them as lovable; even I, a 60-year-old man and therefore only eight years younger than Hinds, wanted to sit in their laps. They're really great, and I hope they win Oscars. But in the end, they're secondary characters in someone else's memory.

The movie Belfast most closely evokes is Hope and Glory from 1987—writer-director John Boorman's magnificent autobiographical recollection of a childhood lived in part during the Blitz in London. What gives Hope and Glory its power is that the kid's-eye view really does represent a radically different portrait of that horrific period during which London was under Nazi bombardment; its little-boy hero is simply having the time of his life as his whole family rises to the challenge of keeping calm and carrying on. Hope and Glory is one of the best films ever made, so it might be a little unfair to Belfast to complain that it pales by contrast. But it was clearly an influence, if not the chief influence, on Branagh and Belfast, so that's more his problem than mine.

Branagh, a wonderful actor, has had an extraordinarily odd career as a director. At the age of 29, he made what I believe to be the single best film adaptation of a Shakespeare play, Henry V. He then went on to make a few Shakespeare movies, each one inferior to the last. Over time he became a director of outrageously bad blockbusters—a horrid Frankenstein with Robert De Niro as the monster, the incredibly lame Thor, and the egregious Artemis Fowl. His only decent recent picture as a director was Murder on the Orient Express, which was almost ruined by his own solipsistic dedication to his central performance as Hercule Poirot. So when I say Belfast is the best movie he's made since Henry V—and it is—I'm afraid I’m not saying much.

Published under: Movie Reviews