Kenneth Branagh is not a subtle director. He loves the stage and it shows in many of the films he has directed, including his newest film Belfast. The film is a coming-of-age tale set against political and religious conflict. After a colorful montage of the modern city, the film switches to black and white and transports the story to the 1960s.
In this opening scene, we follow Buddy (Jude Hill) as he skips down the street towards his home. The scene highlights the lovely community that surrounds him. Then a fight breaks out and Buddy finds himself trapped in between Protestants and Catholics. Things quickly escalate with rocks and Molotovs being thrown. Buddy's mother Ma (Caitríona Balfe) runs out of their flat and into the street to get him. She grabs the top of an aluminum trash can and in slow-motion glory, deflects rocks and bottles as she saves her son. It is a dramatic opening that highlights the ways in which Branagh stages things. The two sides line up in a neat row before the fight begins. The image of Ma deflecting thrown objects is played up for all the drama it can. One can feel the stamp of a theater production on the staging.
This scene highlights one of the many issues with Belfast, that traces the years leading up to the family leaving Northern Ireland. The film is somewhat autobiographical. Buddy is a naïve witness to this moment in history. His Pa (Jamie Dornan) is being pressured to rise up with the locals and push the Catholics out of the neighborhood. Pa doesn't want to choose a side. He wants to protect his boys but is often gone for weeks working in England. This leaves Ma to raise the boys and it strains their marriage. The film's main tension comes from Ma's desire to stay in Belfast as Pa sees a way out.
Belfast is a rose-colored remembrance of the past. One could argue that the film is told from Buddy's point-of-view and therefore is allowed a certain kind of nostalgic indulgence. The trouble is the film often goes for big laughs and heart and sort of forgets to make the history surrounding the film real. The film operates in sentimental string pulling. The very tone of the film refuses to show the danger or reality of this time in Northern Ireland. In one particularly clunky montage, we hear a rollicking Van Morrison tune play as human rights are being violated. This tone-deaf moment is not the only instance of the film painting in broad strokes. Branagh would rather a cute moment than any that would illuminate history.
Cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos's striking monochrome images help give the film a beautiful polish. However, the images are so digitally clear, void of even the slightest grain, that the represent how squeaky clean this telling of the past is. The storying telling is often murky. We never truly get a sense of who anyone is as the script is light on character development. For example, Pa is gone often and yet we never understand his career. There are hints he gambles but again, nothing is fleshed out. When the final act arrives, the film focuses on the IRA struggle after spending so much of the film avoiding it. This sudden focus on politics comes too late for it to stir any emotions from it. The tensions of the struggle of the Troubles suddenly becomes the main focus and yet because the film spends no time defining the grievances of either side, it falls flat. Belfast never seems to know what it is. Cute kids and grandparents aside, the script is a letdown on all fronts. It wants to avoid reality until it decides to focus on it.