Written and directed by Kenneth Branagh
I don't know when exactly I found myself in Kenneth Branagh's corner, but it was long ago and I've never left it. Maybe it's just my age talking: Branagh, in helping kick off the big Bard wave of the 1990s, introduced me to Shakespeare as something potentially beyond homework, and I've always thought there was something cool about a guy who could swing from the kinetic phantasmagoria of Mary Shelley's underrated Frankenstein or Dead Again to a four-hour completist iteration of Hamlet.* It undoubtedly helps that I've mostly either excused myself from his more blatantly-mercenary efforts (your Shadow Recruits, your Cinderellas, your Artemines Fowl) (it's Greek), or, in the case of Thor or Murder on the Orient Express, been able to reclaim them on behalf of Ken Branagh, the sometimes-auteur. Then again, as one of his most favorite themes as a filmmaker has always been himself, Orient Express would almost necessarily have to be tallied in the latter category. Now, I don't know if anybody besides me has ever called Ken Branagh an auteur, but he must want people to. That brings us to Belfast, which is very much in line with that aforementioned favorite theme.
It is also, at least proximately, a knock-off. The basic concept of it, "period piece set in the period of the director's childhood, done in black-and-white and with as much an emphasis on his foggy impressions of the place he grew up in as the actual events that occurred there," is really more like its own genre; but I'm sure Branagh remembers that another film quite akin to his own, Roma, won several Academy Awards a few years ago. To my mind, the best thing about Roma is that at some point people did finally shut up about it. Belfast is almost as self-indulgent as that film, but at least it's more self-reflective in its self-indulgence, insofar as Branagh, unlike Alfonso Cuarón, never placed himself under the obligation of pretending that he cared about his childhood housekeeper. Maybe that's because Branagh, being the son of working class Northern Irish refugees, didn't have a housekeeper, so when casting about for a protagonist, he wasn't put in the awkward position of choosing between "an annoying rich boy whom no-one would like" and "a person I've had historical difficulty in comprehending was human."
The big difference, anyway, is that Branagh can empathize completely with his subject, and has the first idea what his dreams, hopes, personality, etc., entailed, and Belfast is even more heavily tilted toward autobiography than these things usually are. The other big difference, and I suspect this is the biggest difference, is that Branagh brought his thinly-veiled autobiography in at 97 minutes, with credits. That would be remarkable for any movie these days, but it is a God damned miracle in the context of a director's self-indulgent walk down memory lane. Even if I didn't like Belfast, I would find the modesty of that runtime beautiful. Belfast is so short you know that nobody even had to ask him to make the cuts; at some point early in this film's development, Branagh really must have said, "Yes, I find my childhood infinitely interesting, but an audience might not." It's a gesture that engenders a certain trust, especially from a filmmaker whose movies tend to be only as long as they need to be—"I estimate my own life is slightly more than one-third as interesting as Prince Hamlet's, and no more than four-fifths as interesting as Hercule Poirot's"—and the kind of filmmaker who would make that kind of gesture is somebody you can legitimately believe won't abuse your patience with every stupid fucking idea they had the budget to realize, so even if certain things in Belfast don't work (and some do not) they never take a good ten minutes to play out while you feel your organs begin to shut down.
Belfast opens up with some postcard imagery of the titular city, capital of Northern Ireland, full of glossy color, basically an advertisement for the place, though curiously leaning more toward what the Belfast Chamber of Commerce would consider good product placement (look at our awesome dockyard!) than the tourism board, and for that it just barely manages to squeak in as "an artistic choice," since I think Branagh's idea is that Belfast in 2021 isn't just a nice place to visit, but a nice place to live. However, Belfast in 2021 is not where we're going, and after we crest a wall and the world becomes a silvery black-and-white, we find ourselves instead in 1969, a rather less attractive year.
This is where we meet our young Branagh-not-Branagh, "Buddy" (Jude Hill), and his Protestant family. They live in a tiny little neighborhood that has, till now, been more-or-less integrated as far as religion goes, though unfortunately that only means that there are enough Catholics in their small slice of Belfast to draw the ire of the Protestant militias. We recognize that the bucolic rhythms of Buddy's neighborhood are maybe a little too saccharine to serve as anything but dramatic irony—even if you walked into the wrong theater and knew nothing about Northern Ireland, you'd still probably know what's about to happen—and, indeed, their harmony is literally blown apart, and their neighborhood turned into a U2 video. The subsequent 90 minutes, then, deal with Buddy's parents (Jamie Dorman and Catríona Balfe) debating whether to leave this hellhole, though I hope that it doesn't spoil much to say that, in the end, Kenneth Branagh's family moved to England.
It's not exclusively a Troubles drama, of course, but a collage of a year or so in the life of a kid who happened to live in Belfast at the advent of the Troubles. These two things in combination make it a little fresher and more interesting than either would be apart, and Branagh's arranged it so very little happens outside of Buddy's perception, even if a lot of stuff happens outside of Buddy's comprehension: the basic strategy of the film (besides Branagh's usual penchant for "this angle would look cool!," which has been a useful instinct for the director if not always a well-calibrated one) is a lot of frames-within-frames, some more obvious than others, emphasizing how little capacity for privacy there is in this working-class Belfast neighborhood; and if Buddy isn't in one of those frames-within-frames in any given scene, then Branagh will, at its conclusion, cut to Buddy, reminding you that he's still in earshot, even if he isn't really paying attention. And sometimes Buddy's parents will be on the edge of having a breakdown (or a fistfight) in the background, and Buddy will be in the foreground playing with Matchbox cars, which are vastly more fascinating to him than the adult world of Protestants, Catholics, and really great job offers in England that you'd be nuts to have passed up even in peacetime. (Mabye it's just autobiographic, but Buddy's mother comes off poorly pretty much across the board, which is why Balfe is my favorite out of the whole adult cast, as she manages to render Buddy's ma more credible as a person than she even should be.) As for the very big strategic decision here, to do it all in black-and-white, Haris Zambarloukos offers a very handsomely-shot vision of old Belfast; as with Roma, I question the direct applicability of black-and-white to a child's memories of the late 1960s.
But if the goal was to situate us within that child's memories as they're being formed, Belfast works, with basically equal gravity given to exploding cars and Buddy's infantile crushes. It's a cute, bittersweet angle by which to approach such heavy material, and while it can be dumb (Buddy falling in with his hellion neighbor Moira (Lara McDonnell), for example), the bravest thing about the film is the way it comes close to trivializing historical trauma as a way of being truthful to its experience—through an adult's eyes, you can palpably perceive the noose tightening around Buddy's family, even if Buddy can't, but the fact is that they could normalize it, at least until they couldn't. There's some reasonably great lived-in acting all around (and, inevitably, a heap of glib Irishisms that make me glad my forebears left the island and severed our ties with the culture, mostly courtesy Ciarán Hinds's grandpa), but Hill himself is maybe the greatest success of its low-key approach: he's just about flawless in his evocation of an adorable little kid, and, by never forcing the issue, you can equally imagine that he focuses on childhood frivolities in order to distract himself from his disintegrating world... or that he is just that oblivious.
Of course not everything's great; the most underdeveloped theme of Branagh's film is also by far its most aggressive (and I was even primed to like it because Wes Anderson did the exact same thing in The French Dispatch), but, apparently because Ken Branagh grew up to be a visual artist, several works of visual art blast their way out of Belfast's stolid black-and-white and into color. It's showy as all hell (thanks to some CGI, grandma Judi Dench's glasses reflect color while she otherwise remains in black-and-white, during a production of A Christmas Carol). But it's not very rigorous, and perhaps not very meaningful to anybody besides Branagh. You might even need to have a preexisting awareness that this is autobiographical to get why it's here at all. (Even then, it's weird that the Thor comic book Buddy reads is still in black-and-white, isn't it? It's not supposed to be a sub rosa renunciation, right?) There's not a whole lot of sense that these works of art shall go on to inspire Buddy to create his own. Still, I again credit Branagh's modesty and his honesty, for the opprenness with which he admits that he reacted to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang like a contemporary audience beholding Lumiere's Arrival of the freaking Train, and somewhat like Moses reacted to the burning bush.
The tackiest decisions do pile up toward the end. For reasons that I couldn't begin to fathom, Branagh's observational reminiscence of his childhood in Belfast climaxes in an action beat, and I can only hope it has at least some basis in anecdote, because surely it's much too atrociously contrived to have been invented by a professional I admire; and following that, this live-action art-adjacent film ends in a dance party, like a DreamWorks cartoon. (Which is still kind of cute, though I'm not really sure what I think of Belfast native Van Morrison's soundtrack. I would have to assume that Ken Branagh the 61 year old man must like these songs—but it's very hard to imagine that nine year old Buddy would.) Finally, at the very very end, we get Dench coming within an eyelash of just breaking the fourth wall to directly address the audience, which I dug because that does seem like a direct tie to Branagh's Shakespeare-heavy filmography, and right in-between this and the credits comes a dedication that would've benefited from being less watered-down. ("For those who stayed," it begins, and that's a perfect, confessional, and even slightly-downbeat note to leave us on. Then it continues, "For those who left." Well, that covers the bases.)
So there's missteps, yeah, but as you can tell from that kind of nitpicking, there's nothing fatal. I like it. I have some difficulty conceiving of how someone could love it—especially as all its clunkiest material comes concentrated in its last twenty minutes—but it's a movie that, as they used to say, has heart. Shit, low bar, but it's like the fifth best movie of 2021. If it does win that Oscar that Branagh not-very-secretly covets, I couldn't imagine being angry about it.
*I'm fairly positive Hamlet is the second-longest film I've ever seen after (sigh) Justice League, unless you count Siegfried and Kriemhild's Revenge as one movie, which I don't, because they're not.