Belfast is a kind, gentle film full of kind, gentle performances about one of the darkest eras in Northern Ireland history. There’s plenty to like, even some to love. However, every time The Troubles intrude, it’s impossible not to notice how small, how slight the film feels.
Part of this is arguably by design. Buddy (Jude Hill), nine years old, is our way into the story. Played with unshowy realism by Hill, Buddy is a good, naïve kid. As a result, it makes sense that his grasp of rising religious and nationalistic tensions—as well as familial strain–around him would either sail over his head or be too big for him to approach understanding.
Review: ‘Belfast' Is as Warm as a Geansaí áRann, but Significantly Thinner
In some places, the moments the big stuff disrupts Buddy’s world feel honest and well-handled. For example, when Pa (Jamie Dornan, as good in a dramatic film role as I’ve seen him) and Ma (Caitriona Balfe, the film’s ambivalent beating heart) float out the idea of leaving their small Belfast neighborhood for somewhere near London, Hill’s irrational overreaction feels perfectly in line with his age and life experience.
Similarly, Belfast does well in how it stages his parent’s arguments about work and finances flicker behind and around him. He and his brother watch Westerns on television in the foreground. You can feel them burrowing into the black and white depictions of 19th Century American life as if it’ll block out the marital distress enveloping their home.
Unfortunately, Belfast can never find the valence to capture how The Troubles would feel through Buddy’s eyes. Buddy’s street seems evenly divided between Protestant families—of which Buddy’s is one—and Catholic ones. Local agitator Billy Clanton (Colin Morgan) has taken it upon himself to either whip his fellow Protestants into a frenzy through gross “us v. them” bigotry or force them to act like it via intimidation. He largely seems to be precisely what Pa dismisses him as, a “jumped up mobster,” who growls but likes the presence to make his pronouncements seem dangerous.
Then, though, comes the film’s most egregious scene. Protestants have decided to riot once again and have targeted a Catholic-owned general store for looting. Buddy is more or less forced by an older girl from his school to participate. When Ma finds out, she drags him and the girl back to the store to make amends. Even amongst the screaming, glass breaking, and anger, the scene plays largely comedic. Then Clanton does something that ups the stakes so quickly and shockingly, the movie breaks around him.
Some films could handle this scene as the moment where Buddy lost his innocence. Belfast, however, is not such a movie. Instead, the scene feels garishly misplaced, a set-piece so full of seriousness that it forces the film into a direction it is simply not equipped to go. As evidence of this, the movie almost immediately reverts to form after. There’s no sense of “it’ll never be the same for us.” In fact, in nearly every way, the film’s back half feels very much the same as everything that came before Clanton’s act.
The Troubles are simply too big for this take on Northern Ireland in 1969 to process. Nevertheless, Writer-director Kenneth Branagh seems to want to acknowledge the violence he lived through that forced his family to England when he was nine. When it’s right there, though, he blinks and immediately dives back into the safety of a gentle coming-of-age film.
Branagh is very good at bringing that aspect of the film to life. The black and white photography of Cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos has an undeniable sense of heart and warmth to it. It’s not devoid of realism. The locations of Buddy’s life don’t get a fairy tale gloss. However, you can feel Buddy’s (and like Branagh’s) affections for it all from the front door of his home to the park where Pa plays basketball with the neighborhood kids.
Less successful are the moments where color pops up on-screen. It is clearly intended as a “magic of the arts” thing as it only happens when the family goes to the cinema or sees a play. However, as that only happens three times, it ends up feeling less like insight into Buddy’s love of stage and screen and more like a throwaway stylistic choice.
Affection comes through more successfully in the interactions between the cast too. Granny (Judi Dench) initially reads a sort of rigid old woman type but quickly warms up. A scene with Buddy about how she used to feel about movies is the film doing painful reality at its best.
Her relationship with Pop (Ciarán Hinds) is also a treat, Belfast lingering with them enough to give us more than the lived-in annoyance so many films are content with for aging couples. A moment where she declares she’ll be the one to take Pop to the hospital and then walk him home after aches with the years of love, pain, and compromise. Hinds is no slouch either. He brings a playfulness to Pop that makes it clear why Buddy is so taken with him.
If I could bisect the movie, I would heartily and fully recommend the coming-of-age side of the film. I would also tell people to skip the part that wrestling with religious strife and The Troubles. However, that’s not something that one can do. Taken as a whole, it becomes a far milder recommend. What Belfast does well, it does very well. What it doesn’t, however, drags down the film in total.