Kenneth Branagh writes, directs and produces this Oscar-losing drama about a boy named Buddy (Jude Hill) navigating a fraught home and warring community in Belfast, 1969. Let’s call it This Isn’t England.
Branagh offers an idealised view of The Troubles, from Buddy’s sentimental musings to his movie star-looking parents (Caitríona Balfe and Jamie Dornan) who spend their entire screen time arguing about money, apparently unconcerned by the riots erupting on their street. Told from the 9-year-old’s point of view, it follows that we are removed from the conflict’s context or detail to a degree, but the film’s cramped nostalgia fails to engage with it on any meaningful level.
The upshot of Branagh’s semi-autobiographical soft focus is affectionately drawn characters clearly based on real people – not so much the prickly parents as Buddy’s warm grandparents (Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds), with whom he shares the film’s finest scenes. But where John Boorman’s Hope and Glory (probably the movie’s biggest inspiration) tracked its multiple generations with wartime authenticity, Belfast seems stagey and self-conscious, its unnatural dialogue and stylised visuals out of step with the realistic drama it means to depict.
More Son of Rambow than ’71, Belfast is first and foremost an ode to cinema, presenting real life in black-and-white and Buddy’s trips to Hollywood movies in colour. Its Western homages, low angles and drone shots distract from the story, which is left to Branagh’s on-the-nose screenplay to spell out. The best scene is when Buddy accidentally overachieves in a test at school; one of the few moments to be told visually, yet immediately and redundantly explained in the next scene.
Charmingly low-fi and gentle to a fault, Branagh’s “most personal film” is lifted by Hill’s lead performance and a hit-loaded if ill-timed soundtrack from crooning fascist Van Morrison. Still the 2013 comedy Good Vibrations is both more musical and more personal, balancing the feel-good and political with a light touch that proves beyond our Ken.