SAN ANTONIO — There is a scene in Kenneth Branagh’s “Belfast” designed as a hot brand for the heart.
Shot in milky black-and-white (as is the rest of the film), it conjures up a piercing euphoria on the back of a ‘68 ditty primed to re-enter the Billboard’s Hot 100 and two of the most attractive performers to grace a movie screen this fall. You don’t particularly need to know the man and woman Branagh is cutting between; he’s behind the microphone, she’s dancing toward the stage, and there’s a spark in their shared glance which reaches subatomic levels of endearing even before they embrace. It’s rapturously romantic, the kind of movie moment that feels like it was filmed in another time. It also feels like it came from a whole other movie, or, at least, a different version of this one. “Belfast” is a sprightly written but structurally askew Viewfinder of an experience—a movie of moments in the best and worst of ways.
“Belfast” was imagined up by Hollywood journeyman Kenneth Branagh, presumably from sojourns into his own imagination and experiences as a child growing up in the titular Irish community at the dawn of the ‘70s. His avatar is the freckle-faced, near-uncontainably precious Buddy (Jude Hill), who we meet brandishing a wooden sword and a garbage-can-lid shield, ominously foreshadowing the chaos that’s soon to erupt on his brick street this fateful 1969 day and over the next few decades.
The conflict will come to be recounted in history books as The Troubles, though Branagh isn’t concerned with explaining as much. His portrait of a family’s ties to their home tensing up amid the gusts of turmoil will ostensibly be limited to Buddy’s perspective, and he’s low enough to the ground where the chief concern is how he’s going to chat up the pretty blonde-haired girl in school. Well, says Buddy’s grandpa (Ciarán Hinds, giving the movie’s most soulful performance), that would take some strategizing of the boy’s own. And so it will. The classroom becomes Buddy’s own battlefield of sorts. But when Branagh’s scaled-down scope of a child’s witty and charming escapades expands to acknowledge his parents’ troubling reckoning with the newfound dangers of Belfast, a steady hand wavers. A lump gets caught in the movie’s throat, as if its writer-director were scanning for a specific part of himself he left behind.
Branagh has worked in Hollywood since the late ‘80s, but few of his peers could claim to have been as consistent in recent years when it comes to big-name projects. Fashioning himself a sort of steward for major IP, his directorial efforts in the 2010s were firmly in that territory of indistinct and just functional enough, culminating in last year’s distinctly misguided and not-at-all functional “Artemis Fowl.”
Whether or not “Belfast” – Branagh’s first screenplay in 15 years, and his most small-scale project in probably ever – was gestating in the 60-year-old director’s mind while introducing Thor to mass audiences or twirling his mustache as Inspector Poirot, the film resembles a timely reset in the form of a look back. It’s also the latest indication that an air of nostalgia has washed over Hollywood. Melancholy is currently the preferred lens for many of our most storied working directors, yestercentury’s loss of innocence their preferred texture; we saw it with Quentin Tarantino, we’re to see it later this month with Paul Thomas Anderson and sometime in the next year, in an even more narratively direct manner, with Steven Spielberg.
In the case of “Belfast,” however, the film that best serves as the point of comparison...nay, that it practically insists on being in direct conversation with is Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma,” another showcase in memories transposed to the screen in black-and-white visual language and devotion to character during national unrest. Cuaron’s movie triumphs because it underscores the cataclysm of intimate drama. Branagh doesn’t whip up such whirlpools of cosmic emotionality; his approach is a bit more blunt, starting with an initial sequence of utopian neighborhood life transitioning quickly into a display of sociopolitical unrest with the force of a director banging his way into the heart. Even still, when “Belfast” draws blood from our sympathies, the wound tends to be a pinprick, not a gash.
Which isn’t in itself a problem; what Branagh has crafted is something far more accessible than “Roma,” particularly in how his screenplay effectively punctuates scenes of dialogue with humor and sentiment. But the movie is also less engaging; when talk of plans for the central family to go see a movie turns into an exaggerated (but not necessarily unwelcome) scene of cinematic wonder, you might mistakenly think “Belfast” has traipsed even further into fantasy. This is a mildly amusing tableaux of scattershot moments filtered through the years like someone trying to wiggle their way back into a childhood mind while leaving the context of the time to groggily choreographed sequences of sudden violence and repetitions of domestic ultimatum.
The lingering feeling is that Branagh never really knew what to make of his personal history; its awkward storytelling rhythms are akin to him testing how long he can keep his touch on burning surfaces. But his performers manage to keep their characters from becoming mere shapeless totems; Jamie Dornan yields the complicated pathos of a father never quite knowing if he’s ever leaving home for the last time, while Caitriona Balfe has a tragic (if slightly two-dimensional) sense of presence opposite him. Hinds, meanwhile, most warmly personifies the tensions between the Belfast of the past and unknowable Belfast of the future.
Another notable point of comparison between “Belfast” and Best Picture bridesmaid “Roma”: Branagh’s film has been tapped as a frontrunner for the top Oscar. When observing Buddy casually strutting between barbed-wire barricades, it’s hard not to think the movie’s awards hopes rests on the little lad’s shoulders, or at least in this image of hopes and dreams which always seem to glow brighter amid the ashes of desolation.
Branagh, to his credit, knows that the best way to foreground such emotions is with faces. And “Belfast” is a movie that’s heavily reliant on faces; centering them, filling the screen with them, sharpening the glint of tears welling up in a mother’s eyes and emphasizing the angelic awe of a young boy at the movies. The film’s final moments arrive abruptly, and though it’s not in a satisfying, the-story-is-still-being-written kind of way, it’s almost entirely saved by the sheer grace of Judi Dench looking at the audience, willing an on-screen family’s path to reveal itself.
In these images, we can almost imagine Branagh’s own widened eyes, his own nod of recognition. In “Belfast” we do seem to be seeing what he sees when he looks into a past life. But it’s still unclear what’s going through his heart today during all that reminiscing.
"Belfast" is rated PG-13 for some violence and strong language. It's now in theaters.
Starring: Jude Hill, Lewis McAskie, Caitriona Balfe, Jamie Dornan
Directed by Kenneth Branagh
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