With Belfast, Kenneth Branagh Hits Peak Irresistible
Olivia Rutigliano on Branagh’s Sentimental New Film
Kenneth Branagh is a ham. He’s a ham, it’s what he is, he can’t help himself. He loves attention, and he loves art, and he wants to put himself inside everything he enjoys. He wants to be all the heroes, and some of the very good villains. I don’t blame him. I also find it fascinating how his entire oeuvre can be read through the lens of this (innocently) self-centered enthusiasm. Some people find him charming, others find him insufferable, but he is probably, like many of us, merely someone who wants to be recognized as genius and cute and delightful (all of which he is), so he gives himself numerous opportunities to be thought of in these ways.
His new film is Belfast, a period film set in 1969 during the Troubles in Northern Ireland—and although he does not appear in the film, he also appears in it everywhere. Branagh, who wrote and directed the film, was born in Belfast in 1960 in a working-class family. When he was nine, they had to relocate to London for safety. This film, the tale of a precocious nine-year-old who tries to understand his family’s place in the changing social world around them, is the story of Branagh’s early life. More than an autobiography, it feels rather like an origin story: a peek into the circumstances that made him into the man we all know. Is it any surprise that the young Branagh character, a freckled little boy called Buddy (the wonderful Jude Hill), is a winsome wunderkind who does well in school and gets into a little bit of trouble here and there? It is not.
At times, Belfast feels a bit like when someone you know wants to show you their own very cute baby pictures. But this isn’t a problem—there is much to appreciate in this story of Branagh’s life, much to find adorable and beautiful. Although the film’s heart clearly beats for the Northern Irish citizens whose lives were upended (or simply ended) as a result of the upheaval, Belfast is not a film about the political situation at large: it’s a sentimental, child’s-eye view of a changing world. Most adult characters in the film don’t even have formal names; they’re just known as “Ma” and “Pa” and “Granny” and “Pop.” Some of their circumstances and choices are mysterious, and their own histories and dreams can only be inferred. The adults are seen the way a child would see them, remembered the way an adult would remember them.
The film mostly focuses on the effects of the conflict on Buddy’s family and his friends and neighbors, interwoven with anecdotes of everyday life—and even extraordinary moments—that persisted despite it all. Scenes barely take place anywhere but Buddy’s own street, but that street feels like the center of the entire conflict. This is Branagh’s thesis, that Belfast was an ecosystem made up of these droll, dogged little units: it was a city of people with connections to one another. The film’s goal is to provide an interior perspective into what the Troubles felt like for those who lived through them, seeming to play out (for those on the inside) as a rupturing of these mini universes of local bliss more than as a national crisis.
Most of the film is in soft black-and-white, and this contributes to its ultimately rather antique patina. The characters dress in clothes that seem much more old-fashioned than what I had anticipated anyone might wear in a setting that runs from 1969 to 1970. Costume designer Charlotte Walter studied old photographs of children from this period and socioeconomic background, as well as listened to Branagh’s stories about his family, to create realistic fashions of the time and place (both Branagh’s mother and grandmother were knitters, and Belfast has its fair share of delicately handmade clothes).
But the whole aesthetic of the film feels surprisingly bygone—everything in Belfast seems “hand-me-down,” including its grayscale palette, an unexpected choice for representing the conversely psychedelic world of 1969. The kids racing around the city in their thick knee-socks and black lace-up shoes look as though they’ve scurried over from the late 40s or early 50s: a fascinating visual insistence of temporal distance for a film detailing a national conflict which would extend well into the 1990s. But again, Belfast is not a film about the Troubles—it’s a film about Branagh’s own childhood, and its production and costume design gives it the feeling of having happened long ago, perhaps because to Branagh, it feels like it has.
Buddy’s dad (Jamie Dornan, who should play nice dads more often), is a joiner who travels to London for work, sometimes for two weeks at a time, because there are few opportunities in Belfast. He misses his wife (Caitríona Balfe) and his two boys, as well as his jovial parents (Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds). Buddy’s father wants to move the family out of the city during the political upheaval so they can finally all be safe, together, but different relatives resist, not wanting to lose the sense of community that has been so essential to their lives. We learn that Buddy’s parents have lived in the city since they were born, for better or for worse. Several magical scenes reveal Buddy’s father to have prodigious athletic skills and a beautiful singing voice, while Buddy’s beautiful mother is revealed to be a wonderful dancer. Buddy’s not wondering it, but the audience should be: what might have become of his parents if they had left Belfast when they were young?
Buddy’s parents equally represent the unknowable practical world of finances and caretaking. But Buddy’s grandparents are a more fanciful pair—they reminisce often about how they met when they were young, and Buddy’s grandfather teaches him things like how to fudge a better score on an exam. Buddy’s parents think about the future while his grandparents think about the past, reflecting on it with such nostalgic sweetness that in their minds’-eyes, they might have made their own Belfasts.
Branagh, a graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art who cut his teeth at the Royal Shakespeare Company, is one of modern entertainment’s most intriguing personalities. His oeuvre, which mainly features adaptations of Shakespeare and other classic works of literature, seems partly a demonstration of phenomenal excitement about the humanities as much as it has also been an assertion of his taking up the mantle of Laurence Olivier. He has long self-styled as the next great Shakespearean, the next brilliant stage-to-film actor of the new era.
But in Belfast, the foundational text that made the future dramatist is represented not as Henry V but as the comic book Thor, whose Marvel film adaptation Branagh would later direct (in case you’re wondering, there’s also a shot of an Agatha Christie book at one point). Belfast is more than simply a backstory: it’s a nostalgic tell-all, an effort to share favorite things and family stories.
At only an hour and a half, Belfast is a lithe, little film, a perfect movie to watch early on a Sunday morning. It’s gentle and sweet, with moving performances and an abiding tenderness. It’s not hard to see what Branagh is up to the whole time, but it’s pointless to try to resist his charms.