Kenneth Branagh is a celebrated Shakespearean thespian, a multi-hyphenate filmmaker, actor, and writer who’s worked in every Hollywood genre over the years. Through it all, he’s never been one for subtlety. Ray Stevenson, whom he directed in the comic-book adaptation Thor in 2011, once remembered Branagh encouraging him to play his role as loudly as possible. “So I said, fine, I’ll dip my toe into the river of ham,” Stevenson recalled. “And he said, trust me, I’ve swam in that river many times. You enjoy that!”
In the past decade, Branagh has directed (and sometimes starred in) many huge films, and rarely has he been afraid to dive into that river. Along with Thor, viewers got a Jack Ryan movie, a Cinderella remake for Disney, his theatrical Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express, and the hilariously abhorrent fairy-tale film Artemis Fowl. With Belfast, a new work of cinematic memoir that explores Branagh’s childhood in 1960s Northern Ireland, he is finally swimming to shore, telling a nuanced family story that’s tinged with comedy and tragedy, and none of his trademark bombast.
The protagonist is a mischievous 8-year-old named Buddy (played by Jude Hill), a working-class boy from a tight-knit Protestant family that is trying to navigate the sectarian violence breaking out on the streets around them. If viewers can’t already tell who Buddy is supposed to represent, at one point they see him sitting on the curb thumbing through the latest issue of Thor. He’s a clear analogue for Branagh, and the black-and-white storytelling is a way for the director to sift through his memories of frightening times with deft simplicity. The film is evocative of another recent recollection of turbulent family life, Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, but Belfast’s drama is a little more glancing, its childhood antics a little more cartoonish. It’s a sweet and engaging movie, but one that sacrifices some profundity in order to faithfully capture the world through a boy’s eyes.
At no point in Belfast does Branagh depart from his young hero’s perspective. Buddy isn’t old enough to really grasp the difficulties swirling around his family and his city, even if the audience can pluck out more of the darker context. Certainly, Buddy is alarmed that his Catholic neighbors are being harassed and having their windows broken by mobs, and he knows that his parents (referred to as only Ma and Pa and played by Caitríona Balfe and Jamie Dornan) keep arguing over whether they should stay in Belfast or flee the violence and live in England. But Buddy is just as concerned with a crush he has on the smartest girl in school, applying himself so he can be moved to the head of the class to sit next to her. And the most pressing crimes on his mind are the ones he’s committing, like stealing candy bars from the local store.
Befitting Buddy’s excitable but short attention span, everything in Belfast’s narrative is a pocket-size memory—a vignette of some incident or character, likely from Branagh’s real life, be it minor or major. Buddy receives random bits of advice from his kindly grandfather (Ciarán Hinds) and spirited grandmother (Judi Dench). We see flashes of his parents dancing together at a party and overhear threats from a glowering villain (Colin Morgan) who wants Buddy’s father to join his anti-Catholic gang. The moments that make the boldest impression revolve around the art Buddy consumes, hinting at worlds beyond the streets and alleys he roams. Though Belfast is mainly black-and-white, Branagh keeps the color of the film clips that Buddy sees, like they’re a glossy shock to the boy’s system. In one particularly heartwarming scene, he and his family watch, slack-jawed, as the car first takes flight in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.
Still, I found myself struggling to understand the significance of the more distressing moments of Buddy’s life. Branagh’s focus on his young hero means he can’t, for example, clarify why Buddy’s father is constantly fretting over tax bills arriving in the mail. The political dimensions of the Troubles, which led to notorious riots in 1969 (the year in which Belfast is set), are beyond Buddy, and his parents are more concerned with keeping him safe than explaining to him why he’s in any danger to begin with. The central tension of the story—whether the family will flee—is flimsy, given that the answer will be obvious to most viewers. Belfast’s greatest success is that its flashbacks are undeniably personal, providing a specific window into the past; were Branagh to have broadened the scope, he’d likely have lost the truthfulness that comes from using his childhood self as an artistic conduit.