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Written and directed by Kenneth Branagh
Starring Jude Hill, Jamie Dornan and Caitriona Balfe
Classification PG; 98 minutes
Opens in theatres Nov. 12
I’m unsure whether there is another contemporary filmmaker with as whiplash-inducing a directorial trajectory as Kenneth Branagh.
When the filmmaker and actor’s name pops up, you likely – and fortunately, for his sake – recall the man’s respected string of Shakespeare adaptations: Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It, and his gargantuan Hamlet. Maybe you even remember that one time he made a movie in which he played Shakespeare (2018′s All Is True). But, probably not.
What you definitely don’t think of – at least, what I try to shoo away from my own memory – is the Kenneth Branagh who has meandered his way through an astounding number of Hollywood’s trending topics. He’s made a comic-book movie (2011′s Thor), a spy thriller (2014′s Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit), a live-action Disney remake (2015′s Cinderella), a murder-mystery (2017′s Murder on the Orient Express), and a YA Harry Potter wannabe (2020′s Artemis Fowl). Each and every one has been an entirely forgettable exercise. Well, maybe not Artemis Fowl, which is so five-alarm-fire bad that it must be seen to be believed.
So: Just who is Kenneth Branagh, filmmaker? I think, and I hope, that Belfast answers this question.
Shot in the midst of the pandemic, Branagh’s new film is one of his smaller-scale efforts, and his best. Lightly fictionalizing his own youth in the titular Northern Ireland capital during the late 1960s, Belfast focuses on nine-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill), who cares about the following things, listed by priority: the movies, the cute girl in his class, chocolate, his parents (Jamie Dornan and Caitriona Balfe), his grandparents (Judi Dench and Ciaran Hinds), his older brother Will (Lewis McAskie), and chocolate. All of Buddy’s innocent preoccupations are threatened, though, when his idyllic street becomes one of the many battlegrounds of The Troubles – especially when his Protestant parents take a stand to support their Catholic neighbours.
A few things can happen when filmmakers make personal journeys into the past. Sometimes, they can emerge with all-time masterpieces that use memory as a springboard for art that both celebrates and interrogates the past, like Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma or François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. There is the high-quality comfort of Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous, Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, and George Lucas’s American Graffiti. And then there’s the photo-album writ large-ness of something like Jim Sheridan’s In America.
For its part, Belfast dips high and low through the semi-autobiographical cinema canon, with perhaps its largest debt owed to John Boorman’s Second World War-era coming-of-age film Hope and Glory. (And a heavy sprinkling of Jojo Rabbit whimsy, too.) Branagh’s film is made with a warmly fuzzy memory and generous spirit, if not the grandest of visions.
Belfast is sweet without being cloying, passionate without tripping into drippy nostalgia. And it is cast so perfectly – Hill is precocious without being grating, while Dornan, Balfe, Dench and Hinds each get standout moments that feel necessary, rather than For Your Consideration obligatory – that you can forgive the film almost any of its many faults. Like, say, how Branagh oversimplifies The Troubles. Or gives Buddy (ie., himself) one too many wise-beyond-his-years soundbites. Or deploys the less-than-inspired trick of toggling between shooting in colour (every film and play that Buddy watches at the local theatre) and black-and-white (Buddy’s actual life). Oh, and there is an unconscionable amount of Van Morrison here, no matter your views on the musician’s dive into lockdown politics.
When Belfast premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in September, the Academy Award prognosticators in all their panic-sweat glory anointed Branagh’s feature the next Best Picture. (It helped that the film captured the Oscar bellwether People’s Choice Award at TIFF shortly thereafter.) And sure, that may very well happen: the Oscars telecast could use Belfast’s concentrated burst of well-made feel-goodery.
But before the film’s marketing machine gets out of control – or, rather, in control – it’s best to walk into Belfast with the same kind of wide-eyed, heart-on-sleeve intentions that Branagh made it with. The film is not a masterpiece, but a memory box. Comforting, inviting, and one you won’t mind keeping close.
In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a Critic’s Pick designation across all coverage.