It’s well-made, but underwhelmingly conventional and perhaps too prim and proper to suggest that it has any real interest in diving deeper into the dirty sociopolitics of the time, settling unfortunately for a more sanitised, autobiographical Oscar-baiting family picture.
Cast: Jude Hill, Caitriona Balfe, Jamie Dornan, Judi Dench, Ciaran Hinds
Plot: A young boy and his working-class Belfast family experience the tumultuous late 1960s.
Awards: Won 1 Oscar – Best Original Screenplay; Nom. for 6 Oscars – Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Sound, Best Original Song
Distributor: United International Pictures
Subject Matter: Moderate – Childhood; Family Struggle
Narrative Style: Straightforward
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream
Viewed: In Theatres – The Projector
Belfast is a well-made film and should do splendidly with audiences looking for a heartwarming tale of a family amid tumultuous times.
But it rarely worked for me, and I don’t think I’m the right audience for this type of picture. It’s underwhelmingly conventional and ticks all the checkboxes of an Oscar-baiting autobiographical movie.
It wants to portray a time and place—Belfast 1969—which it does quite well, yet from the opening scene in colour of a modern Belfast accompanied by a laidback tune that transits into pristine black-and-white, one can already foretell what writer-director Kenneth Branagh is trying to do.
He’s trying to sentimentalise the past, his childhood, the tight-knit community, friends in school—all these are fine if sentimentalisation is counteracted by an urge to reveal a torrid historical past.
“Be good. And if you can’t be good… be careful.”
This torridness isn’t evident, and as much as the Catholic-Protestant conflict in the opening moments hopes to allude to that, it never even begins to rough up the film. Branagh’s work is so prim and proper, so sanitised that it seems to want to play only by the rules of comfort.
Cue one too many mawkish use of Van Morrison’s songs; cue the undisciplined use of colour in scenes from movies playing in the cinema that the family occasionally visits; and cue nothing that might suggest a real interest in diving deeper into the dirty sociopolitics apart from the mere television news commentary, or an awkward standoff between two opposing factions.
Perhaps by telling his story from a child’s point of view, Branagh wants to preserve only the good—and maybe bittersweet—memories. No nightmares, only pleasant vibes.
This approach will certainly please the crowd and might even land the director his first Oscar, likelier in the Best Original Screenplay category if Paul Thomas Anderson hasn’t already had a hand on it with Licorice Pizza.