Kenneth Branagh hopes to charm Oscar with vanity project "Belfast"
Starring Caitríona Balfe, Jamie Dornan, Judi Dench, Ciarán Hinds, Colin Morgan and Jude Hill. Written and directed by Kenneth Branagh. Now playing at theatres everywhere. 98 minutes. PG
Kenneth Branagh, a fine actor but middling director, recently told the New York Times that the aim of his autobiographical film “Belfast” was to “do some self-remembering without indulgence.”
He may be in denial about the meaning of indulgence. The film is clearly a vanity project, focusing on Branagh’s boyhood anxieties and reveries at the expense of a larger drama, but this is not to diminish its entertainment value.
Indeed, “Belfast” is a genuine crowd pleaser, having taken the People’s Choice Award at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival, a prize that often points to Best Picture consideration at the Oscars.
“Belfast” is set in the Northern Ireland city of writer/director Branagh’s birth. It’s the summer of 1969 and “the Troubles” — sectarian violence between Protestants and Roman Catholics — have explosively arrived in his neighbourhood.
Branagh was then a few months shy of nine years old. That’s the same age as the film’s protagonist, Buddy, played by winsome newcomer Jude Hill, who views the Troubles with both fear and awe. Make no mistake, Buddy is a stand-in for the youthful Branagh.
Buddy is a precocious dreamer, playing imaginary gladiator games with his wooden sword and garbage lid shield while real civil war erupts around him. Freckle-faced, gap-toothed and perpetually gobsmacked, the wee lad doesn’t understand why his fellow Protestants are fighting their Catholic neighbours and why British troops are now manning barricades on city streets.
At the same time, Buddy is getting up to mischief with other local kids and not so secretly carrying a torch for a blond schoolgirl — a Catholic, no less.
The camera often lingers on Buddy’s bewildered face, while also mimicking his pint-sized view of tanks, soldiers and barricades. And let it be said that what few glimpses we get of mob violence during the Troubles are terrifyingly convincing.
The film’s production values are impressive and help make up for Branagh’s patchy screenplay and self-glorifying direction.
Viewers seeking to understand the Troubles may feel as adrift as Buddy, since what passes for a plot is devoted to childhood nostalgia and feelings, not historical facts and details. “Belfast” is designed to entertain more than enlighten.
Nor do we get much by way of character development. Scant inner light radiates from Buddy’s family: homemaker Ma (Caitríona Balfe, “Ford v Ferrari”), carpenter Pa (Jamie Dornan, “Fifty Shades of Grey”) and older brother Will (Lewis McAskie).
Pa is away a lot, working on job sites in England. When he returns for brief weekend visits he and Ma always seem to be squabbling, lately over whether they should move away from Northern Ireland to a less dangerous place.
Buddy gets most of his love and attention from his grandparents: Granny (Judi Dench) and Pop (Ciarán Hinds), who dote on him and always have a wry Irish proverb about life and love to offer.
Dench and Hinds make a delightful pair, contributing much needed levity. If “Belfast” deserves any of the Oscars it’s touted for, these two reliable actors must surely be first in line for glory.
Most of the film is in shimmering black and white, with the exception of bookended views of modern Belfast and brief glimpses of films Branagh loved as a youth, such as “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” and “A Christmas Carol,” which the family enjoy together at their local theatre.
There are also references to the western showdown classic “High Noon,” but the implied similarity with the Troubles is left unresolved. Perhaps the showdown was edited out of the film: with a brisk running time of 98 minutes, “Belfast” feels like it’s missing a few scenes. Suffice to say that Dornan is no Gary Cooper.
Branagh’s chequered filmmaking career is littered with clangers like “Artemis Fowl” and “Thor,” although “Belfast” is one of his better efforts. He evidently embraced B&W this time in the hope it will make his film look more arty, like Alfonso Cuarón’s 2018 memory piece “Roma,” which almost won the Best Picture Oscar that Branagh craves for himself.
Additional Irish authenticity comes by way of a soundtrack filled with the songs of fellow Belfast native Van Morrison, including one new tune, but it feels like overkill. In a country as musical as Ireland, could Branagh not have found additional musicians to add some variety to the proceedings?
This is the kind of movie where you know you’re going to hear somebody sing “Danny Boy” and indeed you do: a street reveller wails it out, as if on cue.
Kenneth Branagh thinks he can charm his way to an Oscar and with the undeniably rousing “Belfast” he might just be able to pull it off. 🌓
(This review originally ran in the Toronto Star.)