Belfast is the most personal film director Kenneth Branagh ever made, and yet I feel like I know him as well after this movie as I do after watching anonymous efforts like Artemis Fowl and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. What is meant as a look at Branagh’s childhood and the time he grew up ends up being a glimpse into the past without perspective. The story is told through the eyes of the young Buddy (Jude Hill), but he is a boy who seems largely unaffected by all the drama unfolding around him. It’s a movie that takes place during Troubles, which does not seem to have anything to say about that period, and it’s a movie where there are marital strife, and there does not seem to be much to say about it either. . Belfast seems pretty much like a collection of Branagh’s memories, but he fails to create them into a compelling or thought-provoking tale.
The film begins on August 15, 1969, with young Buddy playing in the street with his friends as riots begin between Protestants and Catholics. Buddy comes from a Protestant working class family, but they have no malice towards their Catholic neighbors. Instead of engaging in the current political strife that surrounds them, Buddy’s mother (Caitríona Balfe) and dad (Jamie Dornan) have their own problems. They struggle to pay off tax debts, and Buddy’s father is away for weeks at a time on the jobs he can get, which is still not enough to pay the rent. And yet Buddy seems through all to have a pretty happy childhood, consisting of spending time with his loving grandparents (Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds), go to the cinema (the rare color spots in Buddy’s black and white world) and hunt for his beautiful classmate. But despite all the fuss surrounding Buddy and his family, they are in doubt as to whether they can really leave Belfast and what it means to leave their home.
I’m not quite sure how I should categorize at all Belfast. It would be a stretch to call it a “coming-of-age” movie because Buddy seems pretty much the same at the end of the story as he is at the beginning. Admittedly, he’s just a kid, so it’s not like this is one Empire of the Sun situation where he undergoes such a massive trauma that it deprives him of his childhood, but he does not seem to really grow or change or at all register what is happening in his world. He is a passive observer of these events, and yet without any influence, Buddy’s world is recorded as nothing more than a collection of scattered events. These events clearly left an impression on Branagh (hence their inclusion), but they are presented at a bizarre distance. These are things that happened but that did not seem to leave a noticeable impression on Buddy.
For example, in a scene, a local thug (Billy Clanton), who wants to get rid of all the Catholics and at the same time force the local Protestants to either join his crew or pay protection, comes to the house of one of Buddy’s neighbors. The neighbor refuses to fall in line, and therefore the bully punches him in the face and knocks him out in front of his child. But the way Branagh frames the scene is almost comical. The neighbor spits out his drink as he is beaten, then falls backwards into his home with his feet sticking out on the elevation. What should have been a moment of shocking violence to further show the deterioration of Buddy’s neighborhoods leaves no impact on the character or audience.
Or take the scenes between Buddy’s parents. They quarrel about real things – money if they had to move, how much time his father spends away from home – and yet at no point does Buddy seem to engage in these tense conversations. He’s witnessing them, but he does not go to his older brother (a character who has surprisingly little presence in Buddy’s life despite being only a few years older and living in the same house) to ask what’s going on, or make any kind of emotional show that this marital strife is affecting him. It’s like so many things in Belfast, one thing that happened. It weighs neither more nor less than Buddy’s infatuation with his schoolmate, or that the neighborhood is the center of violent clashes between Protestants and Catholics. And of course, as adult viewers, we understand this world better than a child like Buddy, but you can still convey emotional impact without intellectual understanding. Belfast fails to do so, and then it becomes nothing more than a selection of memories without the most important element – how those memories are translated into emotions and transformation.
Belfast is a bizarre film because it’s like Branagh would lock us into his childhood, but only to a point. He is not obligated to expose his soul, but despite all the dramatic things that happened around him, Branagh presents a world without scars. It’s almost as if you were asking him about his childhood, he would laugh at it and say, “Well, except for The Troubles and my parents arguing about money, I was having a pretty comfortable time!” That is not to say that Branagh’s childhood does not matter Belfast never answers the question of why it meant so much that Branagh felt compelled to make a film about it. Branagh ends up giving us a time and a place, but never much reason to worry.
Keep reading: The 10 Best Kenneth Branagh Movies, Ranked
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