Director: Kenneth Branagh
Screenwriter: Kenneth Branagh
Starring: Jude Hill, Lewis McAskie, Caitriona Balfe, Jamie Dornan, Judi Dench, Ciarán Hinds
There is a scene in Kenneth Branagh’s festival favourite Belfast in which a child is caught in the middle of a road as a gang of aggressive men bombard his street with weaponry and handmade explosives. They’re shot in modern digital black and white, the whites of the fire contrasting with the dark greys of their outfits. It’s a scene that will no doubt prove reminiscent of historic televised conflict for much of the viewing public, but for all the truth it holds and the real-life tragedy that it presents, there’s a sense of lingering falsity about the whole thing, one that Belfast never seems to shake.
Kenneth Branagh’s 2022 UK release is one family’s account of The Troubles in Northern Ireland; a time in Irish history that remain fresh in the mind of the vast majority of Irish and British people. The three-decade-long conflict fought over differing political and religious beliefs is considered the ultimate representation of a seemingly eternal antagonisation. Over the decades we’ve seen the conflict explored, critiqued and analysed in films such as ’71 and Hunger, or even in songs from the likes of U2, yet rarely have we seen a Northern Irish filmmaker take the reins of a conflict that has shaped him and thus seen that world through those eyes. Kenneth Branagh does so here, recounting some of the truth of his childhood to represent a more empathetic, family-orientated account of the times that is less concerned with war and death than it is with family squabbles, childhood loss, and presenting humanity as the underdog in an ever-warring world. Belfast offers some of what you might expect, excelling in terms of characterisation and dialogue exchanges, and working to get some career-high performances out of a number of its cast, but it ultimately falls to Kenneth Branagh’s below-par direction which unfortunately sells a vision that ironically Hollywoodises his tale and worse still has very little to say.
Slow-motion moments of rapture are captured from low angles and in shaky cam to illustrate quite obviously the drama of warring factions coming to a head. It’s fairly basic action movie stuff, perhaps learned on the sets of Thor and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, but it lacks any care towards its subject matter and cheapens what must have been a horrifying ordeal. Similarly, musical numbers are interjected throughout, Branagh seemingly intent on illustrating how happiness could still be found in the midst of conflict, but each song being more appropriate for lifting a crowd in a stage environment than suited to a family drama set during The Troubles. These two examples of Branagh’s less effective filmmaking choices are already viewed by some as stylistic signatures true to the filmmaker’s past, and such an argument has a lot of credence given Branagh’s well-renowned stage work and effortless steps into mainstream Disney-funded filmmaking, but neither of them capture the overall mood of the piece, which only reinforces how jarring and false they each seem to be. There’s a crowd that will undoubtedly appreciate the moments of levity that the songs bring, or the actionisation of the conflict, but when judged in service to Branagh’s film they each seem like lesser versions of other things; the music less appropriate, deeply rooted into the purpose of the piece, or downright fun than Taika Waititi’s similarly as tonally disparate Jojo Rabbit, the action scenes more of a music video riot or Green Street-like meeting of firms than the street battles of ’71 or even the much more Hollywood Black Hawk Down.
Where Belfast is most easy to appreciate is in the moments in between the poorly executed fights and jarring shifts in tone, particularly when young star Jude Hill is given the room to offer an outstanding child performance as the fulcrum of both his young family and the wider narrative. His is the face perhaps best captured by the black and white colour palette too, his white hair standing out amidst his dreary home and blending into the lightness of his street to suggest he’s where he belongs, Judi Dench being the other standout in this respect as every wrinkle and therefore every acting choice is highlighted tremendously as the legendary British actress offers a late career highlight that by itself is worth the price of admission. Hill is reliably adorable, but his naturally reserved and observant nature make the character, and Branagh does a tremendous job of helping us to realise the power of his work. Caitriona Balfe is similarly as outstanding as she wears the weight of dread and anxiety on her shoulders each time her husband (played by Jamie Dornan) leaves her to handle the family and the conflict whilst he’s away, working in England. Ciarán Hinds makes it four outstanding turns with his own arc that transitions from ever-caring grandfather to subject of ongoing trauma.
Quite what Belfast is trying to say is another matter entirely. Branagh, no doubt concerned with the truths of his own experiences, focuses almost entirely on the immediate impact The Troubles have on his central protagonist’s life and the ripple effect they have on those with Irish ancestry, but seems to be without a stance regarding the actual conflict. Whether this is anti-war or pro-separatist is unclear, which only makes the moments of shaky-cam violence all the more insipid. There’s a conflict that is right at the front door of this child, yet Branagh makes barely an attempt to confront that truth, to ask any meaningful questions. Instead, we are left with barely a scratch of a pacifist’s argument sketched into the film’s third act; one that Judi Dench sells us better than anyone else ever could, but one that seems to be as jarring as Jamie Dornan singing “Everlasting Love” just moments after being threatened with his life.
Quite a lot can be said about how little Belfast attempts to say about The Troubles, but what really cheapens the experience of this Kenneth Branagh film is the direction of the man himself. With so much going for it – great performances, a central family dynamic that is believable and so worth seeing – it is his insistence upon injecting his idea of excitement into a piece dour in nature that truly undermines everything that Belfast could have been. There’s a truth to this film that is in there somewhere, but unfortunately you’re never too far away from being reminded that you’re watching a film, witnessing a product. Whether they be particular moments, narrative beats or lines shoehorned in with seemingly little purpose other than to please awaiting audiences and create moments, there is such a distance from a truthful, honest take on The Troubles and living life in Northern Ireland at that time that the very real experiences of many, many people seem othered to the filmmaker’s intention. It’s cheap.
Writer-director Kenneth Branagh’s less-than-certain stance and his avoidance of controversy have certainly paid dividends, his film earning Best Film and Best Picture nominations at the BAFTAs and Oscars respectively, and the film totalling close to £15million at the UK box office. But in five, ten or twenty years, Belfast will be a long-forgotten nominee by virtue of doing virtually nothing to advance film as an art form, to create discussion amongst the public, or to even forge conversation about its subject matter. Black and white it may be, and terrifically performed it certainly is, but a great film these two aspects do not make; and Belfast is far from great.