Insanely rich people hide from the inescapably crushing reality of adulthood by spending billions to get kinda close to space. Modestly rich people simply make movies about when they were kids. Addiction to nostalgia is so powerful, it’ll have you huffing fumes of your youth, even if things sucked back then too.
Writer/director Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast is a “semi-autobiographical” look at a regular ole family in Northern Ireland during the violent unrest of the 1960s. You’ll likely remember this from U2 songs or, if you’re particularly unlucky, people who actually have strong opinions on the religious divide between Protestants and Catholics. A thoroughly middling affair, it’s also basically a very long Van Morrison music video, so tell your dad. It’s going to win 1100 awards.
The cherubic Jude Hill plays Buddy, who is not named “Kenneth Branagh” because then he wouldn’t get to claim it’s only semi-autobiographical. Buddy’s Pa (Jamie Dornan) has to work out of country because the job market in Belfast at that time was less stable than the current UK Prime Minister’s hair…or job security. Buddy’s Ma (Caitriona Balfe) does a lot of frantic pacing, weeping, and chiding due to her strained marriage and the fact the neighborhood is now full of Protestant hooligans looking to do bad things to Catholics back when Catholics were equally as known for having bad things done to them.
Buddy’s Granny (Judi Dench) and Pop (Ciarán Hinds) are a lovely elderly pair who are present as a reminder that literally every previous generation laments the state of the next. Oddly, no olds seem to ever lament their failure to ensure things improve each breeding cycle. Instead, they just harumph, adjust spectacles, and expect praise for not dying sooner. Anyway, Buddy basks in the supportive glow of his very good family who all believed everyone was perfectly equal in deserving respect and never did anything bad. The important lesson learned appears to be “move away when religiopolitical dissent gets ugly,” but that thesis is undercut by ending text that praises those who stayed. And those who left. And those who died. Hooray for everybody?
As America is still processing the literal coup attempt from little over a year ago, a film that explores the ugly, scarring nature of quasi-civil war should be resonant. Belfast is not. Oh, it’s fine. It’s definitely pretty, with gorgeous black and white cinematography from Haris Zambarloukos. It’s okay to listen to, if your Spotify artist of the year for the last decade was Van Morrison. But it’s not impactful. It’s solipsistic, as so much coming of age content is.
This isn’t about reading Branagh’s experience as broadly applicable. It’s about how important and distinct his particular childhood was. Undoubtedly, others who had very similar life journeys will nod in approval. As Ebert noted, movies are empathy machines. Strapping in and feeling what the “troubles” in Northern Ireland were like at a microcosmic level is inarguably a good thing. It’s just good with a lower-case G. Especially when this much Van Morrison is involved. A capital Great film would have positioned itself as more of a warning, as countries around the world continue to see the divisive fracturing Belfast survived. Or maybe we’re all past that point now, and all we can do is wait for our turn to hopefully survive and become wealthy enough to make a film about how things were when we were wee.
Grade = C
Other Critical Voices to Consider
Kristy Puchko at Mashable says “It’s not that Belfast isn’t good, but it is too careful, coming off almost fearful of the subject matter at its center. It’s like Branagh is flipping through a family photo album, giving us curated glimpses of these relatives and their lives.”
Richard Propes at The Independent Critic says “While Belfast may not be quite all I wanted it to be, it’s a warm and nostalgic look at the things that nurture and empower us and the memories that never go away.”
Carla Hay at Culturemix says “Belfast is more than a love letter to filmmaker Kenneth Branagh’s Northern Ireland hometown. It’s also a love letter to childhood memories that tend to put a rosy glow on some very grim realities.”