focus features Judi Dench, Jude Hill, and Ciarán Hinds in ‘Belfast’
It’s a tricky proposition to try to show war and conflict through a child’s point of view — and trickier still, maybe, when the story is as personal as Kenneth’s Branagh’s Belfast, a dewy-eyed dramedy drawn from his experience as a little boy living through the earliest days of the violent ethno-nationalist divide that would leave his homeland bloody and battered for decades to come. The result feels like a film filtered less through real life than the rosy lens of sentiment and memory: a soft-focus Irish fairy tale bathed in love and blarney and a whole lot of warbling Van Morrison.
His stand-in here is a scrappy 9-year-old called Buddy (Jude Hill), a happy-go-lucky kid circa 1969 whose playground is the terraces and alleys of his working-class neighborhood — the same streets where his bickering, improbably glamorous Ma and Pa (Caitríona Balfe and Jamie Dornan), older brother Will (Lewis McAskie), and doting grandparents (Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds) were born and raised and hope to die. Life there looks like a Celtic Norman Rockwell painting: neighbors helping neighbors, kickball in the road, John Wayne on the television and afternoon tea.
But the splintering schism between Catholics and Protestants has begun to turn, and it explodes one day in a Molotov cocktail of crime and opportunity — a sudden burst of anarchy that leaves half the windows on the block smashed and the locals deeply shaken. Dornan’s laconic Pa, whose work takes him away for weeks at a time, insists they’d be safer somewhere far-flung in the Commonwealth like Sydney or Vancouver; Ma (a fierce, lovely Balfe) hates the idea of leaving every comfort of home for some faraway place where no one knows their names. Buddy mostly wants to eat chocolate and dream about the moon landing and make some small progress on his school crush, a studious little blonde in pigtails.
Branagh, the vaunted actor-writer-director whose long list of credits includes everything from Thor and 2015’s live-action Cinderella to the upcoming Agatha Christie redux Death on the Nile, shoots it all in classic black-and-white, aside from a few calculated bursts of color. And he clearly cares for his actors, from veterans Dench and Hinds to the cherubic, towheaded Hill. But the nuances of his script also come, disappointingly, in black-and-white: so widely, brightly drawn that what should be touching (loyalty, family, first love) often just registers as maudlin, and what should be terrifying (an increasingly militant neighbor, an ugly smash-and-grab grocery-store riot) seems either cartoonish or oddly removed.
There are already so many excellent chronicles of the era — from films like Hunger and In the Name of the Father to books like Patrick Radden Keefe’s celebrated Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland — that it’s hard to know quite where to slot Belfast. As a firsthand account of the Troubles, it feels woefully distanced from those brutal realities; as a coming-of-age biography, it’s frustratingly broad. Branagh’s genuine affection and nostalgia for his subject suffuse the movie; if only the misty romanticism of his story could match it. Grade: B-