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MOVIES: Belfast - Review

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Belfast is entirely personal, almost to a fault. It feels like a recreation of Kenneth Branagh’s childhood, taking us back to the Troubles after an all-colour musical montage set to a Van Morrison song, the film transforms into an all-black and white approach, switching gears to deliver an innocent street in Belfast itself – kids are playing, and a boy – Buddy – is wielding a bin lid as a shield. He’s called home for tea whilst his neighbours joke about what he could be eating – people are outside on the streets, talking to each other – completely innocent, completely normal – and then the mood changes in an instant, the blink of an eye – the streets turn into violence and the Catholic houses in the street are brutally attacked by Protestant gangs. The next day; a barricade is installed to protect the street – and Buddy must navigate it to get to school.

Branagh himself grew up during this time in Ireland before moving – and the film feels like a recreation. Shot entirely in black and white and ala Taika Waititi and Jojo Rabbit, shows a horrific event depicted entirely through the eyes of a child. We hear whispered conversations between Buddy’s older brother and his dad behind a windowsill that Buddy is listening in on, and we see his personal life change as he develops on a girl who’s top of her class in Maths – so he turns to his grandad for advice, who teaches him to make his numbers look messier so he gets a better shot at getting the answers right - only for when he improves in his class, he moves ahead of the girl he likes, unable to sit next to her. These little glimpses of both his grandparents and his parents – a perfectly idealised view of his dad; who has to spend time working between London and England, feels like a love letter to the past – especially when Buddy himself feels incredibly threatened by the idea of moving away from his home, the only place he’s ever known.

There are moments of magic in Belfast – the love of cinema that Buddy shares represents Branagh’s own interest in film – he watches The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance on television, whilst his parents take him to the cinema to see Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and duck with the flying car as it’s about to go off the cliff before it becomes airborne. The magic of cinema feels tailored towards the Oscar voters – every thing about Belfast feels like it’s laying on its emotions a bit too thick. For every strength a weakness – we get to see his parents – played by Jamie Dornan and Caitriona Balfe – dance in a moving, uplifting way – but the main weakness is that Dornan and Balfe feel a bit too Hollywood for this whole thing to come off – like they’ve stepped in from a different movie. Branagh idealising his parents is an understandable choice; but it takes you out of the movie.

Furthermore, he crafts a film about The Troubles that doesn’t have anything political to say. It’s personal vs. political, almost to a fault – and the end result robs it of any social realism that it tries to achieve, feeling entirely hollow – there’s nothing of the Ken Loach staying power here (for a much better film about Ireland, watch The Wind That Shakes the Barley instead) – Belfast feels entirely light and a breeze, going into no more depth than what its trailer suggested – everything is entirely surface level. The editing is poor and the film feels entirely ugly to watch, never convincing as an actual street – always feeling like a set, in part because it actually is a set – the street was constructed for the film – and it takes a while for you to get hooked into the world.

Whilst Kenneth Branagh is a director who I keep wanting to like – his films over the years have been consistently laboured and hollow; perhaps the rare exception being his 2015 Cinderella or maybe even Thor, referenced here by Buddy reading a Thor comic outside his home – and for all its personal touches that’s what Belfast feels – empty and hollow – if you’re going to reference films such as High Noon so heavily you’d better make me not wish I was watching High Noon instead, which Belfast completely failed to do at every level.

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