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Belfast review: Kenneth Branagh’s trip down memory lane

Belfast is entertaining and not without moments of charm, but is largely insubstantial.

Jude Hill in Kenneth Branagh's Belfast.
(Image: © Focus Features)

Our Verdict

Not without charm, Belfast seems more about Kenneth Branagh dramatizing his own memories without much thought to the wider context of The Troubles, which in turn makes the film feel as though it were written by his 9-year-old self.

For

  • Great performances all around, but especially from Ciarán Hinds and Caitríona Balfe
  • The anecdotal nature of the film leads to some funny moments

Against

  • The childlike perspective is limited and doesn't offer much to say about the world it presents
  • The "magic of cinema" scenes feel superfluous

It’s a truism of storytelling that the purpose of stories is to translate individual experiences into universal ones, to take the thoughts and feelings of the author and use a story to engage with an audience. At its most basic level, Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast seems to be taking this ethos directly to heart. Branagh translates his childhood into material for mass consumption, trying to communicate his own nostalgic feelings for his hometown of Belfast, Northern Ireland — despite the violence he experienced while living there. 

However, Branagh’s hopeful conversation with his audience never achieves much more than that singular basic goal, resulting in an assured crowd-pleaser that fails to convey the impact these experiences must have had on Branagh himself.

The cynical take would be to point out the stylistic similarities to Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma and consider Branagh’s attempt to be an attempt to translate his own life into Oscar gold. However, in spite of a similar penchant for portraying autobiographical events in stark monochrome, Belfast shares much more cinematic DNA with holiday stalwart, A Christmas Story (1983), than with any of its contemporaries. Though Branagh thankfully resists the opportunity to wax lyrically over his remembrances via voiceover, he's represented by the 9-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill, in a precocious introductory performance).

The film opens with Buddy caught in the middle of a riot — sadly not an uncommon occurrence in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s and 1970s — as tensions rose between Catholics and Protestants. For Buddy’s family, like many others, the regular outbursts of violence on the streets are more of a concern than the dominance of any one religious group. True to Buddy’s childish perspective, however, he is more concerned with catching the attention of a girl at school (Olive Tennant), getting pulled into petty robberies by his cousin Vanessa’s (Nessa Erikson) gang and getting life advice from his Granny (Judi Dench) and Pop (Ciarán Hinds). These incidents aren’t quite presented episodically but are rather interwoven with one another, held together by a running throughline of Buddy’s financially stressed mother (Caitríona Balfe) and perpetually working abroad father (Jamie Dornan) arguing about whether it would be best if they left Belfast for better security.

This does mean that the film’s underlying perspective is largely anecdotal and while that does provide a basis for humorous one-liners, dramatic speeches and occasional hints that Buddy’s experiences weren’t unique among the Northern Irish who ultimately fled their homes, there ultimately isn’t much of a story being told here. Most of what could be considered the plot plays out in conversations and arguments that Buddy simply overhears, but not until the climax does it feel like any characters are driving events or conflicts forward. There’s a sense of dramatic reenactment to most scenes, a stagey interpretation of Branagh’s childhood sense memories that add up to a meaningful whole but are so inwardly focused that it’s still probably most meaningful to him.

You see this most explicitly in scenes dedicated to Buddy’s obsession with cinema and live theater, where the film does away with the artifice of black and white memory and portrays the actors in vibrant technicolor, almost as if the magic of the performing arts holds more sway over Branagh’s recollections than his own family. It’s an aesthetic choice that, albeit interesting, comes across more as a pat reiteration of the “magic of cinema” trope that is likely to play well to Academy voters at Oscars nominations time but stands out against Haris Zambarloukos’s otherwise serviceable cinematography. And that’s to say nothing of the film’s overall editing, which feels rushed and scattershot in a manner that likely replicates Branagh’s childhood recollections but only builds the semblance of a story.

The earlier comparison to A Christmas Story is not an idle one, as both films are characterized by a rough outline of childhood nostalgia that lacks narrative cohesion but gestures toward an implied greater meaning. It’s the perfect kind of film to play in the background, letting yourself get pulled back in by the spotlight performance moments — Balfe and Hinds being the standouts in this case, no matter what the "For Your Consideration" campaigns may try to tell you. But Belfast lacks the kind of play to traditionalism that encourages such repeat viewings. It’s not a bad film, nominally entertaining in the moment and not without its moments of hilarious charm, but it’s a largely insubstantial one.

A final series of title cards dedicates the film to the people of Belfast, and sure, that’s peripherally what the film is about. But Belfast seems a lot more about Kenneth Branagh dramatizing his own memories without much thought put forth to expanding on the context, which in turn makes the film largely feel as though it were written by his 9-year-old self. And for as interesting of a writing exercise as that may be, it leaves the film wanting for a bit of maturity.

Belfast opens in movie theaters in the UK on Jan. 21, 2022. It was released in the US in Nov. 2021.

This review was made possible by the Twin Cities Film Fest (opens in new tab).

Leigh Monson has been a professional film critic and writer for six years, with bylines at Birth.Movies.Death., SlashFilm and Polygon. Attorney by day, cinephile by night and delicious snack by mid-afternoon, Leigh loves queer cinema and deconstructing genre tropes. If you like insights into recent films and love stupid puns, you can follow them on Twitter.