For a brand-name creative, Kenneth Branagh’s post millennium output has been a miserable slate of reboots, rehashes and not-starters. From an anonymous Marvel spin-off (Thor) to a laboured Agatha Christie reboot (Murder on the Orient Express), there’s little to suggest any kind of auteur at work. At least these projects are better than product Artemis Fowl or Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. But against all odds, and this critic’s personal expectations, Branagh’s Belfast sees him get his mojo back. It may be sloppy and sentimental AF, but this black and white drama works like a charm, a memoir much in the vein of John Boorman’s Hope and Glory, and one which feels like a return to his 90’s form.
Belfast is a personal memoir of the sixties, 1969 seen through the eyes of a nine year old named Buddy (Jude Hill). Buddy’s Ma (Caitriona Balfe) and Da (Jamie Dornan) are Irish Protestants living in a largely Catholic street, and get caught in the crossfire as the Troubles emerge, pitting family against family on religious lines. Of course, Buddy is more interested in old movies on tv or new fangled concepts like cinema release Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and the conflicts are seen simplified through his wide eyes in a stark, Bill Douglas-lite style. In a balanced subplot, we see Buddy’s enduring affection for his elderly grandparents, played in salty support turns by Ciaran Hinds and Judi Dench.
Branagh does well with the religious intolerance of the time, treated in a simplistic but still effective way. But Hinds and Dench absolutely steal the show, giving the film a genuine heart and soul that makes for a true feel-good ending, with a dynamic night-club dance scene set to Love Affair’s anthem Everlasting Love certain to raise the spirits and bring a tear to the eye. Branagh’s other tricks, a colour picture postcard opening of Belfast now, or tricky HD colour flashes of the films that Buddy enjoys, are rather pretentious; the whole film really didn’t need to be in black and white at all.
Religious bigotry seems rampant in today’s world. Written in letters six feet high across the side of a gable end, the words ‘Kill All Taigs’ has greeted every arrival at Glasgow Airport for six months last year; there’s no political will to remove such graffiti or oppose such hate crimes in general. Branagh’s Belfast doesn’t resolve sectarian issues, or even take a side, but it does acknowledge them, and recounting a personal truth amounts to a subversive act when the establishment are keen to pretend such everyday issues don’t exist. Belfast isn’t a perfect film, but is a genuine crowd-pleaser and a clear sign that the once mercurial writer/director still has something worthwhile to say.
Thanks to Universal Pictures UK for advanced access to this title, previewing this week and out Friday Jan 21st 2022.