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Belfast Movie Review

Belfast (2021) movie poster Belfast

Theatrical Release: November 12, 2021

Running Time: 97 Minutes

Rating: PG-13

Writer/Director: Kenneth Branagh

Cast: Caitriona Balfe (Ma), Judi Dench (Granny), Jamie Dornan (Pa), Ciaran Hinds (Pop), Jude Hill (Buddy), Lewis McAskie (Will), Josie Walker (Autnie Violet), Freya Yates (Cousin Frances), Nessa Eriksson (Cousin Vanessa), Colin Morgan (Billy Clanton), Conor MacNeill (McLaury), Olive Tennant (Catherine), Sid Sagar (Mr. Singh), Ross O'Donnellan (Walter the Policeman)

Kenneth Branagh made his name in Hollywood by directing and starring in a number of film adaptations of William Shakespeare's plays, including Henry V (1989), Much Ado About Nothing (1993), and Hamlet (1996). In more recent years, Branagh has
commanded respect as a for-hire director for high-profile works as varied as Marvel's first Thor (2011), Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014), Disney's live-action Cinderella (2015), and Murder on the Orient Express (2017). If you've ever wanted to know what Branagh did before becoming a respected actor and filmmaker, Branagh's latest effort as writer-director is just for you.

Belfast is a more than slightly autobiographical coming-of-age tale set in the capital of Northern Ireland at the end of the 1960s. Branagh opens with a modern view of the city set to the first of countless catalog tunes by Irish music legend Van Morrison. This color montage soon gives way to a view of the city some fifty years earlier in the predominantly black and white core of the film. Branagh's stand-in (Jude Hill) is called Buddy and is a freckled, photogenic lad of about nine. Through his light, playful eyes we see The Troubles befalling his little working-class neighborhood all of a sudden one August day in 1969.

Buddy (Jude Hill) shares a laugh with Granny (Judi Dench) and Pop (Ciaran Hinds) in Kenneth Branagh's "Belfast."

Branagh chooses not to delve into the history of the conflict that would go on to disrupt Northern Ireland for thirty years, instead letting it serve as a confounding backdrop that threatens Buddy's loving, hard-lucked family consisting of six members across three generations. Buddy knows the car bombs and rioting that have hit his street involve a clash between Protestants and Catholics. Buddy's family, somewhat practicing Protestants, do not have a dog in the fight. His Ma (Caitriona Balfe) and Pa (Jamie Dornan) would prefer to mind their own business than to declare financial and moral support to the cause.

The parents stay out of the turmoil as much as they can, which allows Branagh's film to venture into less dramatic territory, like having Buddy's grandfather (Ciaran Hinds) teach him how to use unclear handwriting to increase his math scores and having Buddy question the old timer about love, a subject that seems to apply to a smart blonde classmate he fancies.

Branagh's film sets out to do just what Alfonso Cuaron's Roma did, channeling childhood memories into a nostalgic portrait of a place that no longer exists as shown and an existence the long since grown filmmakers no longer experience. Unfortunately, Branagh's film has a small fraction of the artistry of Cuaron's film and, as you can guess, an abundance of corniness and sentimentality do not compensate for that chasm. Surely, Branagh's heart is in the right place and it's easier to care about his own personal journey than, say, his next Agatha Christie mystery. But Branagh struggles to make sense of his upbringing or unearth some universal poignancy in it. He opts for the kind of contrived cutesy comedy and heavy handed music cues that hinder Richard Curtis' weaker movies instead of coming to terms with anything or justifying the tears that Balfe repeatedly sheds in dramatic monologue. Branagh acts like he's giving us his own Angela's Ashes, but at times it feels more like a black and white The Boat That Rocked with far fewer laughs.

Ma (Caitriona Balfe) and Pa (Jamie Dornan) share...a funeral dance (?) in Kenneth Branagh's "Belfast."

I like Van Morrison's music as much as anyone, but it never seems to complement the story Branagh is trying to tell. Oddly, movies like Ulee's Gold, Patch Adams, and even The Five-Year Engagement
have wrung more poignancy from Morrison's work than this movie set in the hometown of the so-called Belfast Cowboy.

Another questionable creative decision is for Branagh to focus on the impact that movies and theatre had on him as a child. Branagh assigns the same significance to the arts that Spielberg gave to the girl in the red jacket in Schindler's List, opting to feature clips from the likes of One Million Years B.C. and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang in full color in stark contrast to the rest of the movie. That'd be kind of cool if Branagh was telling his own story all the way through, but he's not and thus that design feels like pandering to awards voters ("I love movies too!") and a far from nimble way to convey the escapist power of cinema. There's something off about a director having a stand-in for himself reading a Thor comic book because he expects viewers to know that he'll one day direct Thor. Woody Allen and Steven Spielberg have never been this on the nose. And if Cuaron's film had been, it'd never have done as well as it did at the Academy Awards (and no, I've not forgotten it sadly lost Best Picture to Green Book).

Over the years, Branagh has been nominated for five Oscars in five different categories, but he's never been seen as an award season fixture, which makes this perfectly-timed Focus Features release a bit of an unexpected power play. This is the kind of movie that historically would thrive at the Oscars, a love letter to the past that aligns perfectly with the aging Academy membership and with the nationality of a considerable section of the voting block. But Branagh's film is both a little late and not good enough to be the film that wins major awards at a time when every Hollywood and awards thinkpiece tackles the issues of diversity and inclusion. This still should charm enough voters to garner major nominations, however. After all, even Joe Wright's deathly dull Churchill movie Darkest Hour did that.

Related Reviews:
Now in Theaters: The French DispatchEternalsAntlersThe Last DuelNo Time to DieLast Night in Soho
Directed by Kenneth Branagh: Cinderella (2015) • Jack Ryan: Shadow RecruitThorMurder on the Orient Express

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Reviewed November 6, 2021.

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