Belfast is anything but subtle. We start with establishing shots of the modern city with an American Blues soundtrack so generic you’d swear Matthew McConaughey or Jennifer Lopez were about to manifest on screen. Instead we arrive at an old picket fence, and panning over it we emerge on a black and white landscape of Belfast’s past. Only it’s a far chirpier and friendlier place that you may expect with children playing in the streets and neighbours gleefully greeting each other as they go about their business. This is the blissful utopia that is Catholics and Protestants living peacefully together. But then the trouble starts! Tensions rise and a young family are caught up between loyalty to their homeland and dreams of something….more!
There is a battle at the soul of Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast. It can’t quite decide if it wants to be the Irish Roma, an Ealing comedy or Angela’s Ashes. It’s the comedy aspect that causes the most trouble. Stakes are often undermined, especially as the big scary sectarian-violence promoting bad guy is finally defeated in a pastiche of high noon. The very twee sequences of Irish life complete with family friendly comedy moments sure to make the grandparents go “aww” is rather at odds with the melodramatic family drama that may see the protagonists driven from their homes.
It is also a rather uneven film. Plot points disappear for long stretches of the film, especially the romantic subplot for our main character. The threat of violence is very prominent in the first half of the film, but is then side-lined in favour of the pastoral impression of Branagh’s youth. The climax of the film begins with a humorous scene of the mother, seemingly forgetting everything she has spent the movie drilling in to the boys about safety, forcing her family to return to a shop being raided to return some stolen detergent. The scene then shifts and the family are actually affected by the obvious danger all around them. It’s sequences like this that cause tonal whiplash.
The humanity of the film’s subjects is threatened when they begin to feel like caricatures. Early on we are introduced to some of the family’s neighbours, most of whom are absent from the rest of the film, and there’s a frustrating ubiquity to the eccentricities of the characters. All the men are drinkers and jokers and all the women are tough and quick-tempered. One gets the impression you could easily forget which house you lived in on this street and just pick the nearest for a roughly similar family experience.
There are, however, many things in Belfast that work well. Jude Hill is a very competent young actor who emotes a great deal when the camera isn’t being shoved into his face. Judi Dench and Ciaran Hinds completely steal the show as the grandparents of the family. They’re chemistry naturally implies a storied lifetime together and they are a joy to watch on screen. Some of the photography is fairly beautiful, though Branagh lacks the sheer inventiveness and scope of Alfonso Cuaron in his love letter to the place of his birth. Most significantly, the discussion around the families decision to emigrate or stay in Belfast is genuinely engaging, and forms the bulk of the second half of the film and is all the better for it.
It’s hard not to feel like a Grinch slating Branagh’s film. It is very clearly a passion project for the man, and his most personal film to date. It’s obviously a huge improvement on his disastrous previous feature, but it’s a shame it doesn’t come together better. The crisis of identity at the heart of the film means it feels hollow and unengaging for most of it’s runtime. But when the film does actually focus up, decides what it wants to be, and goes full at it, it can be poetic, sincere and affecting. But by playing it for the backseats, it just feels too broad to be truly personal.