4/10 Writer/director/producer Kenneth Branagh has a long track record of trying to let his stories tell themselves, and you just can’t do that with narrative fiction movies, a medium in which everything onscreen must be actively created, everything is a choice. His new autobiography, Belfast, seems more ambitious than his usual work on paper, but falls prey to the same tendencies and preferences.
96 Mountcollyer St., Belfast, Aug. 15, 1969- The Troubles explode across Northern Ireland, and in Belfast, protestant loyalists attack historic Catholic neighborhoods, such as the one where Buddy (Jude Hill) lives with his mother and grandparents (Caitríona Balfe, Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench). Over the next year of violence, his father (Jamie Dornan), who works weeks in mainland U.K., tries to convince them all to leave Belfast.
The main problem with Belfast is perspective. The film is a fairly strict, at least from what’s publicly known, autobiography from Branagh, to the point of going back to his actual childhood home on Mountcollyer Street to shoot, and a lot of it is built around his perspective as a 9-year-old child, but not enough of it. The film steers clear of the complex politics of The Troubles, with Pa dismissing it all as religious tension. The black and white colorscheme is probably an expression of this as well, and Buddy is frequently seen watching black and white classic High Noon on the television.
This child-like perspective doesn’t extend when Belfast does wade into the anti-Catholic riots that rocked the city in the summer and fall of ’69. The villains don’t appear as fearsome giants, the Molotov flames don’t envelop – in fact, they’re only ever seen peeking out of the windows of other buildings, barely visible in the greyscale. It’s not exactly a documentary, but the retelling of the parts that ought to have made the biggest impression on young Buddy is surprisingly neutral. It could be that Branagh just doesn’t remember them all that dramatically, but if that’s the case, I’d like to see other editing choices made to minimize their role in the film. The violence is presented as the central tension of the story, but Buddy cares about is the girl at school he’s just noticed. Ma and Pa are the ones navigating the political situation – which they must do separately, since Pa is only in Belfast once a month or so and the gang members deal with him and his wife very differently.
Lead gangster Billy Clanton (Colin Morgan), presumably an amalgamation from Branagh’s memory, is impossible to take seriously. He’s too skinny, he’s too well-groomed, and the one time he punches someone out it looks so fake I half thought he was taking a dive in-universe to try and make Clanton look tough and still failing miserably. I’ve spent the past few months slamming “The Sopranos” and Scorsese gangster films, where the mobsters are all tightly focused on making money and – with a great many delightful exceptions – are reluctant to lift a finger, let alone raise a fist, if not for a tangible profit. Asking me to be scared of this git who looks like he could be folded up and stored inside Jamie Dornan’s torso, who instead of demanding money is demanding they be more openly discriminatory toward their Catholic neighbors, is a stretch.
This is another instance where framing things more exclusively from Buddy’s perspective would have been a crucial improvement, but Clanton is instead only framed as Pa sees him, from an equal height, where you can notice his decidedly smaller shoulders and frightened posture, and even in his scenes with Ma and Buddy, he’s not framed as any more intimidating to them.
As much as violence drives the story of Belfast, it’s rarely onscreen at all. Most of the film consists of quiet shots of the family in their home, frequently long, large-scale shots of the screen graphically split into thirds. Cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos was clearly inspired by the famous deep focus shot from Citizen Kane in which a young Kane’s parents discuss how they’ll whisk him away from his childhood home as he plays in the background, which is the entire plot of Belfast. This is certainly not the worst movie that is completely eclipsed by a single shot from Citizen Kane.
Belfast is consistent and clearly intentional from beginning to end, so it’s tough to call it a failure. This is the movie Branagh wanted to make. I’ve never been a fan of his, and if this is a genuine expression of his memory and the world as he sees it, that could be why – it’s sharp technically, but lacks the imagination to go anywhere as a piece of art.
This is Branagh’s story and it’s good that he got to tell it his way, but it can’t really be recommended as a film.