Written by: Kenneth Branagh
Starring: Caitríona Balfe, Judi Dench, Jamie Dornan, Ciarán Hinds, Colin Morgan, Jude Hill
Viewing one’s past through the veil of childhood nostalgia allows for even the most unsavory moments to be looked upon with higher regard. Our childlike understanding and perception of everything means the larger aspects of what occurs might not be fully comprehended, which Belfast tries to get at with Kenneth Branagh’s look back to his youth in the titular city. While undeniably made with plenty of love and affection, the incoherence of its plot leaves the big emotional overtures to feel hollow, which certainly does not come as the film’s intention.
During the unrest of Northern Ireland of the late 1960s, Buddy (Jude Hill) and his family struggle with what next lies for them. While getting into shenanigans with his friends and developing a crush on a girl at school, his mother (Caitríona Balfe) struggles with the children’s environment as she must contend with her husband’s (Jamie Dornan) unpredictable behavior.
The charms of Belfast absolutely cannot be denied. It exists as a wondrous and nostalgic look at childhood while also displaying the larger turmoils occurring in one’s hometown. Its focus on family certainly aims for being heartwarming, especially the impact it has on Buddy’s development as a young boy. This appears in more than just his parents, but also his grandparents portrayed by Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench. It goes for a crowd-pleasing and emotionally moving effect trying to speak on community, which feels all the more apt to be released now, in a time where this has been missed.
In these aspects, the film does well because it demonstrates the excitement of Buddy’s young life and how he enlists the help of his family members. He receives plenty of wisdom from his grandparents while also trying to emulate his father and avoid the wrath of his mother. Very much a childlike experience plenty have encountered themselves and as a result, this feature can allow others to look back on their own past. Undoubtedly many will find plenty to enjoy in this film and overall, I land positively on it, but it comes with quite a number of issues with most of it coming from the narrative flow.
Coming together as almost a series of vignettes, the narrative of this feature leaves plenty to be desired, which has worked well for other films but when trying to piece together an emotional experience, it all falls short. When looking from Branagh’s perspective, his methodology makes sense as this comes together as memories within a specific time but when you have the big climactic moment where something incredibly sad happens and then it just moves onto something else right away, it feels hollow. Part of it comes from the feature having a rather short runtime, which normally shows a sense of economical filmmaking but in this instance, Belfast would have benefited from being a bit longer. Scenes do not receive the opportunity to breathe in order to soak in what has just occurred. It’s what makes the “Everlasting Love” scene that has been heralded as this major emotional sequence to fall completely flat for me. Things just came and went with a whimper. This issue mostly lies within the screenplay by Branagh, but he makes up for it with his direction.
Very much hit or miss throughout his career with exponential highs with Cinderella and terrifying lows such as Artemis Fowl, he has run the gamut on quality. This incredibly personal work sits right in between but this proves to be his showiest directorial effort yet. Certain scenes, like the opening one, show him working at his finest on a visual level in the way he recreated Belfast and the surrounding struggle. It became very obvious crafting this film came with so much passion and that can be seen in how everything gets presented here. Other scenes like the movie theater sequence show the magic of filmmaking through exceptional work on his own and it certainly must be respected. In a sense, he becomes the reason this film succeeds but also the main element holding the film from fully working as well as it could have.
Belfast will undoubtedly win many over wholeheartedly, but it had missing elements to consider it a home run. Containing plenty of heart and childhood whimsy, this feature feels like a child’s perspective of everything happening around him, but because of its lackluster narrative flow, it does not hit the large emotional points it seeks to land. Certainly, Branagh at his best at a directorial level but his screenplay betrays his efforts from this being the impactful and fulfilling film this project sought to be.