Until the release of his new movie I hadn’t heard much about Kenneth Branagh. Aside from his mid-90s screen version of Othello in which as well as directing he plays a menacingly schizophrenic Iago, I assumed he’d settled on playing gloomy Swedish detectives. Come to think of it can you name a great Branagh movie? I certainly can’t.
And then along comes Belfast. The title alone suggests that this might just be epic, that one great movie missing from Branagh’s CV. How could it be anything else? Take any city you like: Oslo, Nairobi, Lima, Cairo and they won’t evoke anything like the emotion associated with the Northern Irish capital. Belfast . . . That’s a name as dramatic as they come.
Set largely through the eyes of a young boy Buddy (Jude Hill) during the riots of 1969, it is tempting to believe that Belfast is an account of life as experienced by the nine-year-old Branagh, born and raised in the city. If the working-class streets – hectic and thronging with life – seem idealised, then perhaps that’s how Buddy-Branagh perceives them. The pre-riot environment is certainly presented as secure and friendly, the emphasis on community verging a touch on cliché. (Have you ever seen a street so vibrant?)
After a dramatic beginning in which the street is attacked by a mob and after which it becomes a fortress, the film narrows its focus onto Buddy’s family. The young boy’s parents Ma (Caitriona Balfe) and Pa (Jamie Dornan) are struggling to make ends meet. While he dreams of a new life in Australia, she is wedded to the community, church and family. And Buddy’s grandpa is ill.
And that’s about it. What is presented in Belfast is not so much a city torn apart, but instead a fairly average family mini-drama. The troubles are therefore relegated to the hinterlands of this film, occurring somewhere off-stage. Indeed, after the opening riot it’s another 70 minutes until the theme is picked up when a supermarket is looted in which little Buddy is inadvertently involved:
“Why did you take washing powder?” asks his incensed Ma upon the little boy’s return home. “Because it’s biological,” returns Buddy. Hmm . . . humour is not the film’s strong point.
And herein lies the film’s major flaw: it’s never quite sure about its purpose. With the rioting and smashing of windows it starts off in the realms of gritty realism. For a brief moment it looks like we might have a genuinely harrowing film about how terrorism affects the people of Belfast. Alas no. Because in next-to-no-time at all we are deep in the realm of something verging on soap opera with dialogue to match. Will Ma and Pa stay or go? Will grandpa live or die? Will Buddy (a protestant) and his first true-love (a catholic) become an item?
Indeed, aside from a vague plot in which Pa is coerced to join the mob, Belfast manages to avoid examining the city’s political crucible in any meaningful way. What this means is that place becomes almost incidental. This is a film that could have been set in just about any working-class enclave, from Lambeth to South Shields.
But it’s the propensity towards sentimentality where Belfast shoots itself in the foot. Young Buddy might be charming in the way nine-year olds are, and although he’s obsessed with the movies this is no Cinema Paradiso. Buddy adores his grandpa; Buddy adores his girl-friend in a childish way; Buddy’s grandparents adore one another; salt of the earth. Yet somehow the film’s characters never manage to convince in a way Tornatore’s do. They’re too archetypal, too one-dimensional.
When Pa serenades Ma in a bizarre and unexpected night-club scene one can’t help but feel much of this film is affected. It’s trying way too hard to please. Frankly, the film starts to drag and one of the better decisions was to limit its running time to just over 90 minutes.
Filming in black and white is one of many random decisions in a film that is unsure of what it’s really trying to achieve. Hence it jumps around amongst its various strands, trying but ultimately failing to discover a purpose. And so, in the absence of a clear direction, Belfast inevitably seeks refuge in melodrama. It’s a curiously pedestrian film – so much so that even when its ending arrives summoning up any kind of emotional engagement is nigh on impossible.
Put simply: Belfast is a film without a plot. One can’t help but feel this is a project that started out with good intentions, but somehow it all went awry.