One look at the trailer for Belfast and you could be forgiven for thinking that this is Kenneth Branagh’s attempt at making his own personal Roma: a black and white ode to his childhood featuring a baby Branagh analogue (Branalogue?) learning about life during a historically turbulent time. And yeah, it is definitely that sort of thing in intent, but in execution it is much much less. What I mean to say is that Belfast, despite being a mostly entertaining, often beautiful film, is the only passion project I can think of that gives me the distinct sense that the filmmaker was just trying to get it over with. So many aspects of it are intricately designed and conceived, but somehow, it just feels lazy.
The story is rather simple: Buddy (Jude Hill) lives on a relatively quiet street in, you guessed it, Belfast. I’m recent times, due to The Troubles, Buddy’s home life has become increasingly turbulent. The quiet is now regularly interrupted by riotous violence, while those responsible for the violence are calling upon the residents of the neighborhood to either stand up and fight or be considered the enemy. This is tough for Buddy to wrap his head around, as are the more local tensions within his family. You see, Pa (Jamie Dornan, super-hunk) is frequently away from home trying to make a living in London, while Ma (Caitriona Balfe, super-babe) is stuck maintaining the home and keeping her kids safe from the increasing violence in the streets. Pa wants to leave Belfast, but Ma would hate to leave her roots behind. Buddy would prefer to stay as well, but mostly so he can continue trying to woo his adolescent crush.
It’s all super sweet, and in maintaining a lens of childhood, the depth of the issues faced by Buddy’s family are only partially understood by Buddy himself — he sees things with the joyous detachment of youth, but can detect the tension in the air all the same. Unfortunately for us, this idea (perhaps the thematic anchor of the whole film) is never given the time to breathe that it so desperately needs. What I mean is that the film sprints so quickly toward the finish line that it regularly undercuts any chance of creating emotional momentum. The pieces are there, but none are given space to do their job.
It’s no exaggeration when I say that almost every single cut happens at least a second too early, resulting in entire scenes that end before they feel like they’re over, and oftentimes before they even feel like they’ve begun. It’s extremely frustrating as a viewer to feel the seeds of emotional investment as they’re taking root, only to suddenly find yourself in a completely different scene — a scene which ultimately has the same problem. This happens over and over and over again. Watching Belfast is like sitting down for a five star meal prepared by a celebrity chef using only the finest ingredients … but then the waiter takes your plate away long before you have finished eating.
TOO BAD! ONTO THE NEXT COURSE!!
The ingredients really are top-notch, though. Dornan steals the movie, and it pleases me greatly to see him stepping out from the career bondage that is Fifty Shades of Grey (yes, I purposefully used the term bondage because I’m a super genius). Caitriona Balfe is about the best emotional center you can put into a family drama. And the cinematography by Haris Zambarloukos is aces. Many shots are absolutely gorgeous (and the choice to add pockets of color here and there, usually in depicting a film-within-a-film or a theatrical performance, is inspired and effective). The soundtrack features a lot of atypical needle drops that are notable in their purposefully schmaltzy clunkiness.
…but since we race through it all, it’s very easy to forget every bit.
A prime example is a scene (from the trailers) in which Dornan performs the song Everlasting Love. It should be a big, emotional sequence where his vulnerability, writ large, matches with the bright optimism of the classic tune. In this moment we should get teary eyed as Ma and Pa dance together and recognize that while their house is in Belfast, home is wherever they can share love. All the pieces are there to bring this beautiful idea across the finish line, and once they’re all set in place, the scene ends. We’re barely through the first chorus, and our leading duo has shared the dance floor for maybe fifteen seconds. And now it’s the next scene and my emotional blue balls are a-stinging.
All in all Belfast is not a terrible film, but man oh man does it fail to land just about all of its biggest moments. Branagh is a talented enough filmmaker that even a rush job will ultimately have its merits, but it’s a disappointment nonetheless. When I sat down in the theater I was overjoyed to find that this film, which I assumed would be at least 140 minutes, only clocked in at a scant 98, but now that it’s over, I really wish it had taken more time telling its story.
Directed by Kenneth Branagh
Written by Kenneth Branagh
Starring Jude Hill, Caitriona Balfe, Jamie Dornan, Ciaran Hinds
Rated PG-13, 98 minutes