Kenneth Branagh, an acclaimed actor and director known for his many film adaptations of Shakespeare (as well as for directing Thor) gets personal in Belfast. Branagh both writes and directs this familiar yet enjoyable cinematic memoir, a black and white, 60-year-old thespian’s answer to Ladybird or Brooklyn.
Branagh himself was born in Belfast but left with his family to escape the Troubles when he was nine. Thus it doesn’t seem much of a stretch to assume that Belfast is a semi-autobiographical work, and that its 10-year-old protagonist, Buddy, played by Jude Hill, is a stand-in for Branagh himself.
The path to the universal is through the specific, and it’s nice to see Branagh return home. Branagh’s pedigree, as both a seasoned Shakespearian and occasional mass-market director for hire, is nonetheless apparent in his embrace of the broad and the traditional. Branagh nearly always seeks to justify convention through craft. He’s not the guy who’s going to dissect the knock-knock joke, he’s the guy who wants to prove that it’s still relevant. So it is that Belfast is beautiful and timeless, lovingly crafted though occasionally a little schmaltzy.
Belfast opens with a gorgeous, full-color montage of the modern Belfast skyline, before segueing, somewhat disappointingly, to a black and white 1969 when the story takes place. Did we need the black and white to know it’s the past? I tend to like it when the past looks present, vivid and transporting. The grayscale cinematography does look stately, I suppose. Though I do wonder whether it’s just a way to communicate “this film shall be eligible for awards.”
Now, tell me if you’ve heard this one before: there’s an Irish family, and the father is a sporadically-employed blue-collar type, who drinks and gambles a bit more than he should. Though it’s rarely held against him because he’s such a charming rogue and a handsome raconteur, with cute little nicknames for all the children and a quiver of flirtatious one-liners for all the ladies. While the father is a bit of a dreamer, the mother is a rock-ribbed realist, keeping the children in line, the finances in order, and the father out of too much trouble. Truth is, she’s secretly just as much of a sucker for all his bullshit as everyone else.
If you’ve read Angela’s Ashes or experienced virtually any Irish immigrant story between 1845 and today, Belfast‘s family dynamic probably isn’t anything new to you. Jamie Dornan plays Buddy’s father the upright rogue and Catríona Balfe Buddy’s mother the steely-eyed romantic. Boy are they ever gorgeous. I’d probably pay to watch these two lookers stack the dishes, every bit as sexy and glamorous as anyone on Mad Men, despite him being an itinerant pipe fitter (just like Branagh’s Da) and her an overworked housewife. Throw in the great Judi Dench as Buddy’s gran and the vastly underrated Ciarán Hinds as Pop, and hey, sounds pretty good, right?
Truth is, I fucking love Angela’s Ashes. I throw on “Fairytale of New York” by the Pogues at Christmas time and it makes me want to lock arms with strangers and bellow, whiskey-breathed, the half-remembered lyrics. Part of the appeal of the Irish Immigrant Story, I think, is that it is a bit corny; that hoary old tale we make granddad tell again and again because we liked the way it made us feel so much the first time. Thus it’s hard to knock much of Belfast’s format on the grounds of familiarity, it seems fully intentional.
Of course, the idea of an epochal conflict as experienced through the eyes of an innocent is also a bit of a cliché, and a much less enjoyable one. The most obvious example is War Horse, Steven Spielberg’s take on WWI through the eyes of a mute horsey. Belfast‘s war is The Troubles and its horse of course is Buddy, a love-struck, candy-craving 10-year-old who can’t be expected to understand the ins and outs of the Catholic-Protestant divide. Da bai’s only 10, for Jaysis sake! He’s also from a Protestant family living in a Catholic neighborhood in a Protestant area, which is confusing at any age.
Very few 10-year-olds could pull off what Belfast is asking of Jude Hill here, to carry multiple scenes with the camera locked in close-up, his reactions serving as the emotional anchor of important moments. Hill, spirited though he is, doesn’t really pull them off either. A lot of memoirs will slip into what I think of as “child voice.” That’s when the author affects the persona of their own childhood self, with exaggerated innocence. “And then mommy served us a round, hard thingy filled with gooey hollow corkscrews, a ‘bowl’ of something I later learned was called ‘Kraft Mac and Cheese.‘”
It’s a device that tends towards obnoxious, depending on how far they take it. The memoir itself is so obviously a product of adult reasoning and justification, the author trying to organize memory into cause and effect and illustrate something about their family or themselves, that child voice becomes a transparent contrivance, an adult’s weird attempt to ingratiate by baby-talking at us. Buddy is necessary to Belfast, but occasionally too central a framing device, Branagh’s cinematic equivalent of the memoirist’s child voice.
Luckily Belfast isn’t really a story about The Troubles. It’s about the timeless, age-old, love-hate relationship so many of us have with the places where we were born. What do you do when everything about the place seems to be pushing you away, yet it’s also the only place filled with the people you love? It’s that constant push-pull, between opportunity and familiarity, that drives Belfast, the same way it drove Brooklyn and Angela’s Ashes and probably a thousand other immigrant narratives before it. I could pretend I’m above such things, or that I’ve heard this story too many times already, but, especially when I’ve got a charming old raconteur like Kenneth Branagh puffing a pipe in front of me, really I just want to hear it again.