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November 10, 2021

Denver Film Festival -Belfast


Kenneth Branagh - 2021
Focus Features

I am not sure if the superlatives that have appeared since the first festival screenings took place in September got in the way, or something else I have yet to identify, but I was unmoved by Belfast. It is not that Kenneth Branagh's autobiographical film is bad. There is a bit to unpack in the story about a nine year old Protestant Irish boy navigating his way through sectarian conflict within a small neighborhood, along with the more everyday dealings of school and family. Branagh's proxy, Buddy, also delights in the popular culture available in 1969. The time period is the last months of Buddy's family living in Belfast.

A bit of historical context is probably needed. While the period euphemistically called "the troubles" is usually reduced to a religious squabble, it was also a civil war with the Protestants wanting to keep Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom, while the Catholic population wanted to join the Republic of Ireland. Within Belfast were neighborhoods informally designated as Catholic or Protestant. The British army tries to hold a tentative truce when riots break out. Buddy is out of harms way in his elementary school, where getting a good grade in maths is one of his goals, the better to be seated with a Catholic girl he has his eyes on.

Branagh did put a lot of thought in the cinematography, most of it a very formal black and white. Some of the shots are composed to require the audience to pay attention to the entire frame, from foreground to back. An example is of Buddy in conversation with his grandfather on the left side of the frame, sitting outside the grandparents' house, while the grandmother pipes in on the right side looking out of a small window. At a time when most current filmmakers are satisfied with cinematography that primarily serves a utilitarian purpose, Branagh should be commended for his efforts at a visual style.

Buddy's cultural references include clips from High Noon, The Man who Shot Liberty Valance, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and One Million Years, B.C.. The two classic westerns provide a commentary on Buddy's father, and the attempted intimidation by a self-proclaimed neighborhood enforcer to force the family to move. A shot of young Buddy reading a "Thor" comic book is one of Branagh's little self-referential joke as is a glimpse of an Agatha Christie novel, anticipating the work of the future director.

Even though this is Buddy's story, it is the adults who are most interesting. With their nineteen year age difference, Ciaran Hinds looks older while Judi Dench looks a bit younger as the grandparents. In doing a bit of research, I found out that Dame Judi had directed Branagh in several plays, their professional career going back over thirty years. Jamie Dornan is the father, often away at work in England. Dornan gets to display some of his musicianship performing the soul hit "Everlasting Love". CaitrĂ­ona Balfe does most of the heavy lifting here as the mother trying to keep the family together when threatened by both forced and chosen dislocation.

The use of classic songs by Van Morrison make up most of the film's soundtrack. More than fifty years old, they have withstood the years. There is a bit of irony in that Belfast was produced with strict Covid protocols monitored by a credited crew, and Morrison has chosen to be a prominent "anti-vaxxer". Branagh probably did not anticipate the controversy that Morrison would create, but if Belfast offers a clue, it is that there space open for the contrarian.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at November 10, 2021 07:40 AM