I wasn’t expecting that. I may have to retract my assessment that Sir Ken is one of the worst directors under the firmament. There’s no doubting his responsibility for the steaming pile that is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and I wouldn’t wish to go to the opposite of extreme of suggesting Belfast is some kind of small miracle, but it is, for the most part, a model of restraint and well-wrought performances. Almost as if, when faced with something personal, Branagh was ironically able to get out of its way.
Cynicism is due Belfast, however. It’s a modest little movie, calibrated, with its black-and-white and nostalgic/harsh autobiographical childhood elements, to score the kind of critical and awards garlands seen with past such escapades (Hope and Glory, Roma). Inevitably then, Belfast is gathering its own plaudits, but they’re inherently questionable.
The picture comes up short in terms of insights, offering low-fibre character types for family members and broad ones for villains, and much of its work is done for it, through the backdrop of the Troubles instilling an underlying – and sometimes overt – tension. Its movie-muse invocation is also slightly self-immolating, given Branagh’s chequered-at-best directorial career (he is no Guiseppe Tornatore, and his passion for the pictures, as identified by One Million Years B.C. and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, is considerably less evocative).
It perhaps helps Ken that his choice of the child’s-eye view forestalls a deep dive into the period’s political turmoil; he ensures he doesn’t come unstuck simply by making it clear the unrest is bad for everyone, and in particular for the kids. His one sectarian is thoroughly bad seed Billy Clanton (Colin Morgan) – the western allusion is no coincidence – such that Jamie Dornan’s Pa observes “You’re a jumped-up gangster and always were” (as in, there’s no danger of mistaking his rottenness as politically motivated).
I feared the worst in the opening scene, as the camera indulges a typically OTT Sir Ken circular motion around young Buddy – Jude Hill, very good, possibly too note-perfect at times, but never in a suffocating Haley Joel Osment sense – as a protestant riot overruns his street. Was this going to be yet another motivelessly over-directed Branagh affair? Fortunately not, as the visceral mayhem of the subsequent rampage is involving and immersive (this isn’t far off the grandstanding opening of Jim Sheridan’s grittier but equally contrived In the Name of the Father).
Indeed, Ken seems to know better, most of the time, allowing Ken the writer and Ken the friend of actors to have priority. The tendency to over flourish only really intrudes again during the third act (well, if there are actual acts here), when a succession of rather unbelievable circumstances collide.
The idea that Ma (Caitríona Balfe) would drag her thieving son back to a looted supermarket amid the looting, given her desperate attempt earlier to pluck him from the oncoming riot, is a stretch. An even bigger one is Pa appearing (from nowhere) in a High Noon showdown, he and Billy framed by riot police either side. One might, given the accompanying soundtrack, see this as Buddy’s subjective embellishment – which is doubtful, given the picture is only intermittently keyed that way – but that makes it no less a dramatic misjudgement, given the care Branagh has taken to keep the family on the periphery of overt involvement in the growing unrest.
Additionally, I’ve never been to an Irish wake, so it may well be common for grieving sons to embark on renditions of Endless Love before leading their wives in a romantic groove – earlier, they’re dancing in the street like Cliff Richard never went out of fashion – but tonally. it seemed not only askew but also askance. An old dear bellowing out Danny Boy on the street – “What did you do with the money?”; “What money?”; “The money your ma gave you for singing lessons” – seemed much more authentic.
Pa’s earlier baiting by Billy, to show his loyalty to the cause, and Pa’s dismissal thereof, carries a quiet conviction laced with the understanding that this familial situation can’t be sustained. However, Ken’s inherent lack of subtlety can only really be counterweighted by performance, as it isn’t in his nature. While Dorman and Balfe make for an absurdly attractive couple, both are highly accomplished in their roles. Balfe gives the kind of deceptively effortless performance that ought to be getting the awards recognition showier turns will doubtless eclipse.
Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench are as note-perfect as the grandparents as one would expect; Hinds is clearly playing older – and Dench younger – but I did wonder at the twenty-year age gap. It’s been said the picture is treacly, but my antennae for such elements is usually fairly acute, and aside from the classmate Buddy moons over and Grandma’s heartfelt “Go. Go now. Don’t look back” at the end, I didn’t feel I was being drowned in sentimental effluent.
Ken’s period flavour is sometimes vivid, at others rather self-conscious (again, Sheridan was as guilty with In the Name of the Father). He has nothing very profound to say about God, which makes sense given the family’s ambivalence (the fork in the road notwithstanding). The punctuation of everyday life with events of the year (1969) inevitably takes in the (alleged) Moon landings, and Star Trek, and young Ken Buddy is cutely seen reading a Thor comic; there is a slight sense of Branagh pulling up a Wiki list to pad out his picture (which is commendably brief), although that’s mostly in the form of the aforementioned junior pre-romance subplot. I was also given pause at a family ostensibly so strapped for cash being able to afford a Thunderbirds outfit for one of their offspring.
Branagh’s also light on diving into period attitudes. Time noted, with a glimmer of a raised eyebrow, that his Belfast “is much more diverse than viewers might expect”. Granny comments on an Asian neighbour, and Buddy is pressed by Moira (Lara McDonnell) into stealing chocolate from Mr Singh’s (Sid Sagar) corner shop, while his teacher is played by Irish-Nigerian Vanessa Ifediora. The black English soldier getting short with Ma receives no derisive comment. Granny’s initial response suggests Ken won’t be pressed into revisionism, but later examples imply presentism at play (“the romantic nostalgia of his own memory” as Time charitably put it). Buddy’s right that no one likes Turkish Delight, though.
The bursts of colour seen intermittently are likely conceits Ken took from other sources (Pleasantville, for example), an indication that the true vibrancy of life comes from an escape into the arts, be that John Sessions (!) on stage or a flying car. Elsewhere, your mileage may vary, but by my reckoning, nine Van Morrison songs on the soundtrack is at least eight too many.
The issue with Belfast, by and large, is less about how well observed and admirably played it is within the limitations of its canvas, than it’s positioning, so clearly designed to attract plaudits, so composed with an eye to generating admiration (regular Branagh DP Haris Zambarkoukos does some valiant heavy lifting to that end, and the use of black and white is much more effective than the anaemic results seen in previous awards contenders Mank or Roma). It’s a minor, agreeable affair, although by Ken’s standards, that makes it something of a triumph.