Belfast
First screened in November 2021
Director: Kenneth Branagh. Cast: Jude Hill, Caitríona Balfe, Jamie Dornan, Judi Dench, Ciarán Hinds. Screenplay: Kenneth Branagh.

Photo © 2021 Focus Features/Northern Ireland Screen/TKBC
I wasn't too taken with Belfast, but I feel genuine compassion for it, partly because it gives every sign of meaning an enormous amount to writer-director Kenneth Branagh, and partly because the worst possible thing is starting to happen to it, which is becoming an Oscar front-runner. I'm glad it's moving and delighting people, even if the film is not for me. Belfast commits no important ills and I don't wish it any. But I don't see any argument that this shakily constructed, nostalgic-despite-itself wisp of a thing is remotely built to withstand the years of scrutiny that a projected Best Picture Oscar will impose on it. Why can't it just be the near-and-dear, "one for me" mediocrity that Branagh got to make after all his lucrative brand service for Marvel and Disney and Christie, and with his hefty paycheck for so egregiously acting the villain in Tenet?

In a just world, this would be one of the movies I forget when I try to jog my memories of everything I saw last year (or even last week). I appreciate its impulse to stage the sentimental minutiae of childhood side-by-side with major public clashes and era-defining crises. I don't think the movie handles either half of that equation very confidently, much less the ways they affect or refract each other. But some of that asymmetry is surely intended, and at least Branagh doesn't allow the weight of History to make his movie too "big." Caitríona Balfe and Jamie Dornan have underwritten roles, but better ones nonetheless than either has reaped elsewhere on the big screen. Both actors are good enough to nudge casting directors to keep them in mind. Jude Hill, the young lead, seems like a sweet kid. Faint praise would be a blessing in this case; it's the hype machine that's about to invite damnation.

So, before the movie's modest virtues get further blown out of all proportion, and before the critiques proportionally intensify into unmerited odium (and get waved away as "backlash"), I'll just file my brief against shoddy filmmaking and slink back out of the claims office. Haris Zambarloukos, whose CV has too few Enduring Loves by now and too many Mamma Mia!s, shows no real photographic eye here, despite the surface sheen of his black-and-white lensing. You wouldn't divine anything interesting about character or circumstance from looking at any still-frame from Belfast, even the logistically complicated ones. (Look, we caught Mom's reflection in a mirror!) The lack of grain, texture, or visual depth—again, even in shots that are technically deep-space compositions—comes across as weirdly synthetic, mitigating any sense of actuality or of "period." The movie was shot on location but doesn't really feel like it. Sometimes the compositions have the pixelated feeling of VR. Sometimes they have the flatness of a click-through slideshow. They don't often evoke life, much less in 1969, though some of the sets and props are endearing.

The editing is bewildering. Branagh has achieved a compact 98-minute runtime by seeming to omit about half the scenes that would explain the others or fulfill their promises. Subplots and supporting characters drop away willy-nilly and resurface at random, like dolphins coming up for air before they return to the deep. (Something about a tax man? Something about a collaborative school project? How long has grandpa been gone? Is he...still with us? Oh, he is? Oops, maybe not?) I genuinely believe you could remix most of Belfast's scenes in almost any order without shifting the experience very much, a clear sign of weakness in a script that's got plenty of other problems. Here's one among many: based on the nearly 90 minutes preceding, I defy you to convince me why that mom elected to teach that lesson to that kid in that store, at that moment.

And I'm not sure why Branagh hasn't settled on a point of view, which admittedly is seldom his strength, even in good films. (The controlling POV in Henry V and Much Ado is "Shakespeare"; the camera is there to capture mood and performance, the soundtrack to record language and score.) Belfast has all the trappings of a Hope and Glory-style "child's eye" view on public and private jaunts and travails. However, we depart quite often from Buddy's rather nonspecific vantage—darting often into all-adult worlds without, it must be said, any palpable boost in maturity, clarity, or sophistication. Thus, Belfast comes across less as a child's movie than a childish one.

I feel bad for even belaboring the flaws in this determinedly small film. Would that dozens more movies each year, whatever their limitations, felt as personal as this one! I promise I was rooting for it. Sometimes Oscar buzz does a lot of good work for a tiny movie's fortunes, and I wish this were one of those cases. But sometimes that golden statue, even before it's been handed out, feels like a magnifying glass, focusing all the solar energy of the world's attention on a beetle just going about its business—or on a poor kid with nothing but a tin shield and a cardboard sword to defend himself. Good luck in that Coliseum, Buddy. Grade: C–


Academy Award Nominations:
Best Picture
Best Director: Kenneth Branagh
Best Supporting Actress: Judi Dench
Best Supporting Actor: Ciarán Hinds
Best Original Screenplay: Kenneth Branagh
Best Sound: Denise Yarde, Simon Chase, James Mather, Niv Adiri
Best Original Song: "Down to Joy"

Golden Globe Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture (Drama)
Best Director: Kenneth Branagh
Best Supporting Actress: Caitríona Balfe
Best Supporting Actor: Jamie Dornan
Best Supporting Actor: Ciarán Hinds
Best Screenplay: Kenneth Branagh
Best Original Song: "Down to Joy"

Other Awards:
Toronto International Film Festival: People's Choice Award
National Board of Review: Best Supporting Actor (Hinds)
British Academy Awards (BAFTAs): Best Britsh Film

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