- Focus Features
As a filmmaker, Kenneth Branagh's gifts are many—but subtlety is not generally among them. Over the course of his 30-year career, ever since he burst onto screens as the triple-threat behind 1989's Henry V, Branagh has flourished when the material best suits his urge to go big, from his Shakespeare adaptations to the melodramatic mystery of Dead Again or even his 1994 Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. The fit feels less comfortable when he's attempting a low-key comedy-drama like Peter's Friends, or taking material like Murder on the Orient Express and gilding the lily with cutaway overhead shots of train cars, or filming every character through beveled glass so we understand the fragmented souls within.
Belfast finds writer/director Branagh turning his attention to a thinly fictionalized version of his own childhood, a coming-of-age story set in the midst of violence and turmoil in 1969 Northern Ireland. There's some delicacy required when dealing with subjects like religious intolerance and the emotional upheaval faced by anyone considering leaving their homeland as a refugee, and at times, Branagh seems quite up to the task. And at others, not so much.
He starts off with a busy but effective sequence finding Branagh's 9-year-old counterpart, Buddy (Jude Hill), enjoying the freedom to roam and play through his mixed-religion Belfast neighborhood, just as a group of Protestant rioters sets out to make it clear that the Catholic neighbors of Buddy's own Protestant family are not welcome. Buddy's debt-ridden father (Jamie Dornan)—already frequently away for work in England—worries about the dangers now faced by Buddy's mother (Caitriona Balfe) and his kids, which seem to be growing when Pa refuses to give aid to the anti-Catholic mob.
Branagh weaves through the principal plot's socio-political strife with some episodic misadventures for Buddy, and it's there that he finds some of Belfast's more engaging moments. There's an amusing bit involving Buddy and one of his older cousins trying to determine if they can discern a Catholic from a Protestant just by their first names, and a subplot involving Buddy trying to figure out how to get the attention of the schoolmate he has a crush on, with some sage advice from his grandfather (Ciarán Hinds). Like many stories built on nostalgic reflection, there are very time-specific markers here—including the Apollo 11 moon landing and shows like Star Trek on television—but the decision to use a soundtrack almost entirely of Van Morrison songs rather than circa-1969 pop chestnuts serves to anchor the story in its specific sense of place, rather than its specific sense of time.
Yet it's clearly not possible for Branagh to avoid being the Branagh whose visual style leans into the showy. While the bulk of the story is captured in black-and-white by cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos, the moments when Buddy is enjoying a movie on the big screen—including One Million Years B.C. and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang—are suddenly awash in color, just so we understand how much cinema brought life to his dreary existence. It's one thing for Branagh to shoot upwards from an extreme low angle if he's emphasizing Buddy seeing adults as towering figures, but just feels like overkill when such a shot includes Buddy himself. And in case we weren't clear from Buddy's viewing of High Noon that his father stands as a similar brave, lone figure against bad guys, Branagh has to play the Tex Ritter theme song from High Noon while Pa is engaged in his own standoff.
None of this is fatal to what Branagh is ultimately trying to accomplish in Belfast, which focuses on that notion of how the immigrant experience becomes the immigrant experience—most often, through unlivable circumstances in a place you love, and only leave because you feel you must, even as you expect to face rejection from those in your new chosen home. Young Jude Hill is a perfectly serviceable guide through that idea, perpetually listening in on the grown-up world, even if he sometimes seems a bit too freckle-faced adorable to allow the threats of his environment to register like they did in John Boorman's tonally-similar Hope and Glory. As a writer, Branagh has a compelling story to tell, and a unique point-of-view from which to tell it. It's just hard not to wish that, as a director, he would have trusted that writer's sense of restraint a little more.