Kenneth Branagh is an award winning filmmaker who I’ve had it up to here with. After his remake of Murder on the Orient Express, where he turned in a borderline insane performance as Detective Poirot, the project felt like a pointless excuse for him to chew scenery and enjoy his ridiculous accent. He’s made a sequel, Death on the Nile, which may never see the light of day due to circumstances outside of Branagh’s control. His latest film Belfast, seems to be the Oscar front-runner at the moment, and in a year where I haven’t seen many films that have truly wowed me, few left me as deeply underwhelmed as Belfast.
Buddy (Jude Hill) is a young child growing up in Belfast, Ireland during The Troubles, a violent war brought on by religion in the summer of 1969. His parents (Caitríona Balfe and Jamie Dornan) have a difficult relationship, the father wanting to take a job that will move the family away from Belfast, and the mother questioning her place in the life they’ve created. Buddy’s grandparents (Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds) sit around and offer words of grandparent-ish wisdom.
Belfast is Branagh’s rose-colored-glasses autobiographical love letter to his own childhood, the power of family, the power of cinema, but most importantly, his love letter to himself. Belfast is a deeply self-indulgent film, and I guess I should have expected this from Branagh, who I only thought I had a severe dislike for in front of the camera. Buddy is obviously the placeholder for the director himself, and he’s a charming and precocious child who always says and does the right thing, and is enraptured when his family will take him to the cinema, and even at one point, Buddy reads a Thor comic book, and Branagh went on to direct the first Thor movie, a point where I did such a severe eye-roll, my eyes almost got stuck there.
I guess your tolerance for Belfast will depend on your tolerance for adorable children, of which mine is admittedly very low. You really need a great child actor (like Jacob Tremblay in Room) to sell what’s happening onscreen, and to not fall into those cutesy, twee, insufferable trappings that films from the perspective of children often do. And while the young Jude Hill is not a strong enough actor to pull this off, every second of this is kind of ruined when you remember this is a deeply self-indulgent filmmaker just ruminating on their past.
The adult performers have very little to do as well. Balfe and Dornan are an estranged couple who are constantly fighting in front of their children. Dench and Hinds are the wise grandparents who always have important, life-affirming advice to offer. There is nothing to any of these characters and they are all frustratingly paper-thin.
Cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos shot this, and it’s presented primarily in gorgeous black-and-white cinematography. However, given that most of this is in black and white, it’s hard not to compare this to Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma, which also shares many of Belfast’s problems. There are shocking bursts of color in the black and white, like when Buddy goes to the movies or goes to a play, he’s seeing the show in full color. A decision that cements my thoughts about how deeply self indulgent this film is.
Like Roma, Belfast is a film easy to admire but difficult to love. There is not really a lot to connect with emotionally here. The story is so personal, but there’s never any attempt for it to feel universal. Unless you latch onto these characters and their struggles early on, you might experience a difficult time with this one. But then again, Belfast is one of the most celebrated films of the year so far. Maybe I’m just broken, because I didn’t find it interesting or charming or genuine in the slightest. Belfast is a total bore and I’m sure it will win best picture.