BELFAST feature photo

(L to R) Caitriona Balfe as "Ma", Jamie Dornan as "Pa", Judi Dench as "Granny", Jude Hill as "Buddy", and Lewis McAskie as "Will" in director Kenneth Branagh's BELFAST, a Focus Features release.

All great films are personal. Whether they root from their creator’s childhood, past experiences, harsh realities or artistic dreams, personal narratives have led to some of the most lasting achievements in cinema. Just look at Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Mirror, Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma and François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows — even Shia LaBeouf’s Honey Boy dripped with love and heartbreaking honesty.

Focus Features’ Belfast is a drama straight from Kenneth Branagh’s own experience growing up in Northern Ireland. It’s no doubt the writer-director poured his heart into this project, tossing in fun details and a few heartwarming scenes. (You won’t soon forget Jamie Dornan’s irresistible rendition of “Everlasting Love.”) However, whenever it feels like Branagh settles into a sweet or emotional spot with his story, the filmmaker quickly abandons it to move on to the next thing. In addition to not having a fluid visual identity, sometimes using handheld and other times a static angle without much rhyme or reason, Belfast comes across as a messy collection of scenes that lack the emotional momentum to make it sing. 

As the title indicates, Belfast is set in the Northern Irish capital in 1969. It follows young boy Buddy (adorable newcomer Jude Hill) and his family (Dornan, Caitriona Balfe, Lewis McAskie, Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds) through the start of a violent conflict. Protestant unionists and Roman Catholic nationalists are at each other's throats regarding whether or not the province should remain part of the United Kingdom or belong to the Republic of Ireland. As tensions rise, the family struggles to decide if they should stay in Belfast or leave it in the rearview.

Branagh opens his film in present-day Belfast, highlighting shipping boats, architecture and the colorful landscape. With a Van Morrison song playing over the images, the film’s tone seemingly adopts a romantic comedy feel. You’ll question if you’re in the right theater before Branagh sends us over a time-jumping wall to shake the film of its colors. The monochromatic world seems to be about 20 or 30 years behind, looking more like the 1940s instead of the late ’60s — a detail that makes you compelled to learn more about Belfast. 

Young Buddy runs around town at the opening, trying to make sense of the violence that’s unfolding around him. People are smashing business windows and throwing rocks at each other. And in swoops Buddy’s mother (a terrific Balfe), holding a trash can lid like it’s a superhero shield. As Ma, Balfe pulls out the most rewarding aspect of the film: the strength of a mother’s love. The film’s best scene, between Ma and Pa (Dornan) near the film’s end, punctuates this sentiment.

Branagh includes a few of these shining, tender moments throughout, many of which are between Buddy and his grandfather (a scene-stealing Hinds). But these impactful sequences feel plucked from a better movie — one that properly takes its time to make you emotionally invested in its characters. For instance, Buddy develops a budding love with a girl in his class. They exchange a few words, but we don’t stay with them long enough for it to materialize into something truly sweet or real.

Everything in Belfast is too idealized and muted to be an authentic, well-balanced retelling of Branagh’s youth. Whenever Branagh seems to fear that he’s losing his audience, he turns the volume up on Van Morrison’s music and changes the scenery. It’s like he’s going for the cutesy tone of Jojo Rabbit, but he doesn’t know how to navigate the harsh reality of the times with comedy, and it just gets lost somewhere in between. 

Written and directed by Academy Award® nominee Kenneth Branagh, 'Belfast' is a poignant story of love, laughter and loss in one boy’s childhood, amid the music and social tumult of the late 1960s. Starring Caitriona Balfe, Judi Dench, Jamie Dornan, Ciaran Hinds, and Jude Hill. 'Belfast' is in theaters November 12.

PRESTON BARTA is a member of the Critics Choice Association and the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association. Read his work here, on FreshFiction.tv and on RottenTomatoes.com. Follow him on Twitter at @PrestonBarta.

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