by David Katz
- Kenneth Branagh leaves Shakespeare and Hollywood blockbusters behind to make his most personal work to date, a childhood memoir about growing up in Belfast amidst The Troubles
It’s funny to think how, around a decade ago, releasing a decently budgeted feature film shot in black and white was considered a commercial liability. Now, following multi-award winners such as Roma and Cold War [+see also:
Q&A: Pawel Pawlikowski
film profile], it seems like an obligation, a visual sheen imparting gravitas and respectability to these autobiographical journeys into the past. This sense of “just so” hovers around cinematic multi-hyphenate Kenneth Branagh’s svelte, sad, sentimental Belfast [+see also:
film profile]. A story inspired by Branagh’s boyhood in Belfast just as The Troubles began brewing, it’s been tipped for Oscar success and is currently doing the rounds amongst the major autumn festivals. Its domestic gala premiere at BFI London was earlier this week.
Still, what distinguishes Belfast in a positive sense from forebears in this new quasi-genre is its willingness to be a crowd-pleaser. Roma had no bombastic, non-diegetic score to match its widescreen imagery; Belfast drops in so many Van Morrison tracks that it starts to evoke all the Simon & Garfunkel patched into The Graduate. This gentler touch also extends to its political content: being pitched so broadly in tone, and to a potentially wide age range with its pre-teen central character, gives it a plausible deniability as to why it slightly mischaracterises the nature of The Troubles. This means that although it authentically depicts the 1969 riots – where Catholic families were brutalised and evicted from their homes – the actual, thorny subject of Irish Republicanism, and its influence up to the present day, is absent. Whilst we can understand Branagh’s rationale, it still makes Belfast a bit blithely unserious, a jolly and brogue-accented facsimile of a place and an era.
The acting and dramaturgy are strong, although we’re far from Ken Loach’s methods of formal austerity – he being one of the few British directors who sought to examine this subject matter without any commercial concessions. Branagh has hired the best and the most glamorous thespians to play the central family – Jamie Dornan, Caitríona Balfe and Judi Dench – and their performances are nicely theatrical, as if they were projecting their voices to the nosebleed seats. Dornan’s character (just known as “Pa”) is a joiner on construction sites (just like Branagh’s own father), often plying his labour in London and returning home whenever able. Buddy (Jude Hill) is the Branagh stand-in, observing his family’s tempestuous dynamics, in between plucking up the courage to ask out his young female classmate, and catching movie matinees and the TV transmissions of classic Hollywood westerns like High Noon and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. It’s with the latter references that we realise this is also the coming of age of a cinephile.
What gives the film its poignancy, and will surely be a relatable aspect for many in the Irish diaspora, is how its focus sharpens to be simply about leaving Belfast. It reminds us, or asserts, that the destiny of many Irish people is to up sticks and leave when times are too hard – that it’s a part of the Irish identity as much as residing on the isle is. So is Belfast an appeal to a life Branagh may have had, when his work has been so English-associated (with Shakespeare), and international and fantastical (Thor)? Interesting questions – but wait, I can hear the opening chords of “Everlasting Love” starting to chime…
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