Kenneth Branagh’s semi-autobiographical drama about The Troubles is undermined by its depthless and apolitical tone.
After spending a few years punching out lacklustre studio blockbusters, Kenneth Branagh has opted for a more personal project in Belfast, a drama based on his own experiences growing up in the Northern Irish capital amid flaring tensions between Catholics and Protestants.
Nine-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill) enjoys his simple life in the city with his Ma (Caitríona Balfe), older brother Will (Lewis McAskie), Granny (Judi Dench) and Pops (Ciarán Hinds), while his Pa (Jamie Dornan) is frequently away working in England. When Pa returns, it becomes clear that the situation in the city is escalating, with Protestants inflicting intimidation and violence on Catholics in their own neighbourhood. When local gang leaders attempt to recruit Pa into their campaign of terror, he resists and inadvertantly places a target on his back.
Shot in black-and-white (with occasional flashes of colour, such as in the film’s opening and when Buddy visits the cinema with his family) it seems as if Branagh may have been influenced by the success of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, which similarly drew on formative memories to create a portrait of a family facing
Unfortunately the impact here is rather more dreary; it feels like a shortcut for evoking a sense of nostalgia that adds precious little to the film itself. Uninspired, too, are the rather generic adventures Buddy undergoes: he develops a crush on a classmate; he falls in love with an older girl who is a bad influence; he is spellbound by a trip to see Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, in a direct nod to Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso.
Branagh paints with the broadest strokes and his film is all the worse for it. It doesn’t have anything unique to say about this turbulent time in Northern Ireland’s history which is still cause of contention to this day.
It doesn’t help that Hill is a jarring lead whose acting feels overwrought; Balfe and Dornan are much more agreeable presences, but given decided less to do as Branagh is so caught up in this child’s eye perspective. A scene in which Dornan performs ‘Everlasting Love’ should have an emotional kick to it, but for reasons unknown Branagh lacks the courage to let the sequence play out in its entirety.
The subject matter is clearly close to Branagh’s heart, yet the final product is a disappointingly opaque and grating melodrama which ends up closer to pastiche than tender memoir. In an effort to create a crowd-pleasing story of youthful exuberance in the face of adversity, the director seems afraid to think big, and Belfast suffers for it.
This story about growing up amid the onset of The Troubles should be more emotionally and politically potent than it is. Instead, it’s a careful, uncontroversial (and thereby unremarkable) film that fails to exert any lasting impact after the credits roll.