Recently, when discussing Kenneth Branagh’s vast body of work with a colleague – which included everything from his triumphant, grandiose adaptation of Hamlet to his comedic bit part in The Boat That Rocked – the conversation turned to his roots.
My colleague, knowledgeable of his career in general, was astonished to discover he had been born in Belfast and had spent much of his formative years in this island’s second-largest city.
I can understand the surprise. Branagh’s stardom is rooted in English cultural linchpins. In theatre, Branagh cut his teeth on performing sold-out Shakespearean drama, and as a director, he has brought the Bard to the screen in multiple inventive re-interpretations.
As a film actor, he has portrayed influential English performer Laurence Olivier in My Weekend with Marilyn, Gilderoy Lockhart in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Agatha Christie’s famous detective-for-hire Hercule Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express (and its upcoming sequel), and even Shakespeare himself in the historical fiction drama All is True.
With Belfast, his latest directorial project, he returns home. A semi-autobiographical coming-of-age dramedy, it is Branagh’s love letter to the city of his youth and its people.
We follow 9-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill), a filmic stand-in for a young Branagh, as he traverses the signifiers of growing up – that is, dealing with a crush, stealing sweets, and learning right from wrong.
He is cared for by his family, Ma (Caitríona Balfe), Pa (Jamie Dornan), Granny (Judi Dench), Pop (Ciarán Hinds), and older brother Will (Lewis McAskie).
They are a working-class Protestant family living in a tight-knit community in Belfast at the tail-end of the 1960s. Anyone with a working knowledge of Irish-British history will know that what marks Buddy’s coming-of-age story different to others is the seemingly inexorable violence he finds at his doorstep.
After opening on aerial shots of modern-day Belfast (a celebratory acknowledgement of the city’s growth in the years since the Good Friday Agreement), the film switches to crisp black and white as we step back in time.
We then see Buddy as he plays with other kids on his street and jokes with his neighbours, a mixed crowd of Catholics and Protestants. Branagh is known for the heightened speech of his Shakespeare adaptations, but there is no such loftiness here. The conversation Buddy shares with those around him is naturalistic and sparkles with wit – this remains consistent throughout.
However, Branagh wastes no time in setting up context. The joyful atmosphere of this introduction is disrupted by a violent Loyalist mob who march up Buddy’s neighbourhood to destroy the homes of Catholics, to intimidate them into leaving.
It is an example of effective filmmaking as a slow build in tension erupts into a sharply-edited frenzy, to exemplify the young boy’s panic as he dips and dives in between the rushing crowd to find his Ma.
Belfast is a coming-of-age narrative first, exploration of a complex and violent historical conflict second. This works for the most part as we see events unfold from the perspective of a young child who cannot fully grasp the world in which he has found himself.
News reports of the ensuing civil war play out in the background as Buddy and his brother do their homework, play with their toys.
Although he makes attempts to rationalise the violence – there is a sweet, funny scene where he talks about the difference between Catholic names and Protestant names with another kid – he would much rather go to the cinema or the theatre with his family.
Scenes in which Buddy and his family do take cultural excursions feature the film’s only use of colour, as stage and screen are illuminated in full hue in contrast to their environs.
There is even a clear homage to Cinema Paradiso when Buddy watches Chitty Chitty Bang Bang on the big screen: he is filmed in extreme close up, the light of the cinema projector shines bright behind him as he stares on in wide-eyed wonder.
If Buddy is understood to be a Branagh-surrogate, then this is to mirror the vibrancy and life he found in movies, TV, theatre, and literature when the world around him grew hostile.
While Buddy’s inability to articulate the complexities of the violence surrounding him is understandable, it is less so for the adults who resort to mawkish platitudes when confronted with his questions. “There is no us and them” they say, as their street is turned into a blockade.
No explanation is given as to why there is violence, and Branagh ultimately lands on an understanding of the Troubles that is essentially ‘Catholic versus Protestant.’ No care is given to explain history, culture, partition, and politics – the various nuances of identity within the conflict – and we know why: this film intends to be a crowd pleaser.
And a crowd pleaser it is – the coming-of-age narrative central to film is safe and predictable. It is easy to map out how it will unfold beat-by-beat, minute-by-minute. Even though Ma and Pa debate moving abroad as the conflict worsens – going back and forth on an ever-increasing list of pros and cons – we know, as viewers, that they will, and can imagine the film’s climax before it even plays out.
Perhaps my perspective is skewed by my recent viewing of Maeve (1981), directed by Pat Murphy, another film that uses the conflict in the north of Ireland as its backdrop. It is more studied and nuanced in its exploration of identity and emigration.
That is not to say that Belfast is thoughtless. It bubbles over with a clear affection for the city after which it is named. I just wish its chief focus lay more in honouring its history than indulging in cheap sentiment.
Belfast is out in Irish Cinemas from Friday 21st January