Kenneth Branagh embraces nostalgia and forgets to say anything in Belfast

“Branagh confuses a child’s subjectivity with one that erases all politics and moral questions. We are left with a shallow and empty husk, a collection of memories ungrounded from their context and reality.”

Belfast opens with contemporary shots of the city. Drones drift over rust-coloured shipyards, and a skyline also comes into view. The city seems empty, absent of people. The footage feels vaguely promotional and more anonymous than omniscient. As we cut to the past, the film shifts to black and white. Only during the vivid experiences of cinema and art will we find colour again. The filmmaking style also changes, from the impersonal to the highly subjective. Within the first moments of descending on the boxy Belfast neighbourhood of Branagh’s youth, we enter the subjectivity of his child self. 

Framed as memory rather than history, Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast recalls growing up as one of the only protestant families on a block of Catholics targeted by the larger protestant minority. At first bustling with community and life in the opening sequence, the deep sense of togetherness is shattered during a visceral, brutal attack. The “Troubles” threaten the fabric of the community and inform the narrative trajectory of the rest of the film. 

Jamie Dornan, Ciarán Hinds, Jude Hill and Judi Dench
Jamie Dornan, Ciarán Hinds, Jude Hill and Judi Dench

As told, quite decisively, by Buddy (a film debut for the young Jude Hill), our perspective on events rarely wavers from what he can see, hear and understand. The world feels small, much of the action in the home or within the city block. Branagh, quite consciously, transforms this world into a stage, an operatic landscape of simple morality and conscious artifice. This film isn’t a historical document but a remembrance, an innocent look at a complex situation. 

Branagh’s filmmaking adheres obsessively and ruinously to this conceit. Buddy becomes our eyes and ears in this world, so, during an argument with his parents, he remains perilously perched in a corner, unnoticed by them. Branagh’s rather garish framing and overuse of wide-angles make this moment feel particularly silly, especially as his camera already peeks voyeuristically on the scene. Since the film’s subjectivity as Buddy’s has been so well-established, the lingering voyeuristic camera would be enough to emphasize the point. Instead, we have moments that are unnecessary blunt and, worse, rather ugly.

The child’s subjectivity also reframes events through cultural touchstones he understands. Among his obsessions are Westerns, particularly Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon. High Noon’s sounds and moral questions return several times during the film, even shaping the confrontation of the final act. What obligation do we have to our community? In a heated conflict, is there nobility in not taking a stand? Rather than subvert the simple morality of Hollywood cinema, the film somewhat oversimplifies the complexities of classic narrative cinema even further. While High Noon inflamed certain audiences with its radical point of view on pacifism, no one will be outraged or provoked by any moral stand taken by any of these characters. Branagh’s filmmaking doesn’t want us to overthink any specific ethical questions the film presents. 

The film doesn’t take a firm stance on any of these ideas, preferring to embrace nostalgia over reflection (similarly reflected in the cloying soundtrack by Van Morrison). Though flawed, Buddy’s parents are beautiful and noble and special. He sees them as pillars of his community but apart and separate from it. They belong to Belfast but are just special enough that they also seem better than it. Buddy’s reverential perspective, which infects the film, allows no real dissension on this point of view, rendering the film’s conclusions facile and childish. Branagh seems to confuse a child’s subjectivity with one that erases all politics and moral questions. We are left with a shallow and empty husk, a collection of memories ungrounded from their context and reality. If they engender feelings, they are superficial and lack the power to challenge or provoke an audience; they don’t linger or transform. 

Kenneth Branagh and Jude Hill on the set of Belfast
Kenneth Branagh and Jude Hill on the set of Belfast

Belfast isn’t without its strengths. The performances all around are compelling and warm, striking the right balance between naturalism and staginess. Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds as Granny and Pop are heartwarming, and their arc is devastating. The black and white cinematography looks rich, though Branagh’s actual mise-en-scene leaves much to be desired. 

Nothing can overcome the film’s overall flatness, which feels more like a postcard than an in-depth work of art. There are no discernable ideas, just fleeting, underdeveloped feelings. The conceit of the child’s perspective ends up being the film’s greatest downfall. Aesthetically, Branagh is overcommitted to the idea. Narratively he under-utilizes the bluntness of the child’s point of view to make a grander point about politics and life. ■

Belfast opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Nov. 12.

Belfast, directed by Kenneth Branagh

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