Kenneth Branagh’s cellulose autobiography of his childhood is one of those productions that almost resists a critique because it is so absolutely honest in the depiction of growing up in the middle of Northern Ireland’s religious and bloody battles between Catholics and Protestants, colloquially known as The Troubles. It does this through the eyes of Branagh as a primary school child, learning about life and love from his parents, but particularly his ailing grandfather and his philosophical grandmother, a woman who has clearly constrained her own personal development for her husband’s and her family. But criticism is a healthy thing to show a film’s strengths and weaknesses because in Belfast’s case the power of the film falls short is a number of ways while achieving sentimental power in other ways. I should know. I spent two years working for BBC Northern Ireland as an executive producer on youth programmes, hence much of what Belfast shows me is truth, if spooned with some honey.
Giving the film the name of Branagh’s hometown pays homage to his city. The city fathers – once an all-encompassing term but one has to add mothers to it these days – should be proud of Branagh’s work as an auteur. It will win audience favour. That Branagh manages to forgive and praise is a credit to the way he has encompassed symbolism in one small brick-built terraced street of two-storey houses, the only relief from this domestic claustrophobia being in the form of brief visits to the local children’s school, the pub, church, a Pakistani-owned grocery shop and a cinema. For the most part the film engages the heart by depicting Belfast old – the early Seventies – and Belfast new as an humane place to live, though it was once a life held in constant stress, existence in jeopardy at the point of a rifle or a plastic bullet. or a Molotov cocktail.
The film opens with a colourful montage of drone shots high over Belfast, drifts into black and white for the 1969 story of a ‘close knit community’ – a cliché – and ends in modern Belfast, returning the screen to colour. Where it stumbles is in its content; too many scenes are derivative, it manipulates our emotions, and is often theatrically stagey. In fact, holding most of the action down to one house and backyard in one street could easily be contained on a stage as a stage play.
To counteract the potential of a walking pace, gentle study of a family, Branagh and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos and editor Úna Ní Dhonghaíle keep the action on the move. The scenes are really vignettes, some brief monologues, some short dialogues, like a book flicked open to look at only the photographs and read the captions. The story is related chronologically, so that we see a beginning, a middle and an end. Appropriate passages of songs composed and sung by Van Morrison hold scenes together, Branagh having decided correctly, an orchestral score inappropriate.
Branagh places the entire weight of the film, and its ultimate success, on the shoulders of Jude Hill playing Buddy, Branagh as a young boy. That’s quite a responsibility. And yet scenes are not shot from his perspective. The camera gives his mother (Catriona Malfi), and then his father (Jamie Dornan), and then his grandad (Ciarán Hinds), full favour. For the most part, young Hill acts with the right amount of child-like conviction aided by an intelligent, eager-to-learn curious mind. I know from my own experience of working with children Hill was coached how to react.
I believe in allowing children on screen to be themselves, to speak and move as they would normally, even if it means they show little expression. Give them the instruction where they have to be physically at each point in the shot and let them react and speak naturally. Steven Spielberg is a past master at directing children, a lot of his movies depending on the veracity of their young cast. Branagh’s Buddy is very talkative. He tells us what to think of him. There are moments where I wished he would be silent and just ‘do’ rather than blether. In fact, everybody has too much to say, good jokes and all, and not too much to emote; that old English theatrical tradition again, you speak a line, I answer, and then you speak another line. Moreover, Dame Judy Dench playing the careworn Granny, has an iffy Belfast accent though Belfast has been her whole life, her presence to give the proceedings some high thespian class.
To see how it is done well as universal masterpiece see Vittoria De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves. The child at its centre barely has a speech to say, and neither do the few adults. Everything we see, the child sees. There are no flashbacks, no fillers, no adult-only exposition or scenes. It adds up to a black and white piece of astounding neo-realism that attains the power of a Shakspearian tragedy without every seeming staged. It is pure cinema.
There are any number of ‘we knew that would happen next’ moments, not many surprises. You know the guy with the bad cough in the First Act will die in the Third Act. One member of the family will always be at odds with the other members. Love blossoms in Buddy’s attraction to a pretty blond in his school class, and he charms her by showing he has brains and moves up the meritorious hierarchy of desks to the front, one by one. They represent how people can get on together when uncomplicated mutual respect and love are the compelling qualities. A thug looking for gang recruits and money tries hard to bully Buddy’s father to join his menace but gets nowhere, as does the arc of his character development. The only violence we get to see is a punch to a face. This is The Troubles with a soft centre.
Branagh gets off with the clichés and fall-offs because he throws in humour just as a scene is about to flatline or the tension threatens to explode out of control. He defuses the conflict. When a riot breaks into the grocery store, and Buddy forced into stealing something, he chooses a packet of washing powder. Asked why he lifted that of all the items he could have stolen, he is ahead of modern thinking when he answers, “It’s biological”.
Some scene are inserted merely to spin a joke, some are there because they are historically accurate. The progress of the struggles is seen on television newscasts, which keeps budgets costs down. Hard politics of the Great Divide and a united Ireland are avoided. In Cabaret, the sleazy restaurant and stage show gradually loses its clientele and show by show is replaced by Nazi officers as Hitler’s madness takes hold of Germany, the stage dance routines gradually catering for the new taste in jackboot ideology. In Belfast, when the Brits arrive in force, in tanks and body armour and vizors, they arrive suddenly and noisily, threatening instant death. The idyllic nature of the street seen at the start, children playing hopscotch, fighting with wooden swords and bin lids as shields, is over. in one brutal moment. The only thing left is the decision to stay and tough it out, or as Buddy’s father prefers, leave for a life elsewhere.
I thought the tourist views of Belfast at the start superfluous, the need for ‘Three Months Later’ caption unnecessary, and the denouement scene that switches Van Morrison to the theme song from High Noon crass at a critically dramatic moment, another instance where background acoustics were enough.
For all that, the film’s content is sincere, very affectionate of people and place, and yes, I did choke up in a few places, but I knew I was meant to do exactly that. For those reasons, and the strength of pro-Irish feeling in the USA, it will win an Oscar. Thinking about the film’s content on the way home, I looked and I understood how a Scottish film industry could flourish if only it controlled funds, commissions and distributors.
PS: The film won Branagh ‘Best Original Screenplay’ at the Oscars (News added 28 March 2022)
- STAR RATING: THREE-AND-A-HALF STARS
- Cast: Jude Hill, Jamie Dornan, Ciarán Hinds, Catriona Balfe
- Director: Kenneth Branagh
- Writer: Kenneth Branagh
- Cinematographer: Haris Zambarloukos
- Composer: Van Morrison
- Certificate: PG-13
- Duration: 1 hour 33 minutes
- RATING CRITERIA
- 5 plus: potential classic, innovative. 5: outstanding. 4: excellent. 3.5: excellent but flawed. 3: entertaining if formulaic. 2: straight to DVD. 1: crap; why did they bother?