There’s more than one Belfast. There’s Belfast you know from history classes or from accruing knowledge about the world in your own capacity. There’s Belfast you find on postcards – “Venice of the North” as Belfast City Council would like you to see it as – brimming with nightlife, greenery and tourist attractions. There’s Belfast you can visit where you will find out that the glitz of tourism exists side-by-side with the vestiges of its troubled and bloody history. There’s Belfast you can move into where you will find truly amazing people full of warmth and candour and who are putting their best foot forward to work through an intergenerational PTSD.
Then there’s Belfast Kenneth Branagh remembers. After all, he did spend a chunk of his childhood there and the outbreak of The Troubles in 1968 clearly informed his childhood, so much that he eventually decided to make a movie about those very memories, which is a big part of why Belfast came into existence. He took those precious images of his old grandad drinking coffee in the outhouse, his gran’s wisdom dispensed while she was knitting, his mum’s no-bullshit attitude towards local troublemakers and his dad’s calm and collected resistance to being manipulated into joining one of the local paramilitary groups and fuelling the raging sectarian war. Or at least so it would seem.
This is because I believe Belfast was supposed to be quite a bit more than a time capsule for Branagh, or an opportunity to relay to us what it was like growing up while the world was quite literally crumbling apart around him. He wanted this experience to transcend the parameters of a coming-of-age autobiopic about The Troubles and how his parents made probably the hardest decision in their lives to abandon their homeland and move to England in search of safety and prosperity for their children. Thus, Branagh imbued Belfast with elements of magical realism and overt referencing to the popular culture of his time so as to make sure that we all knew it wasn’t just a story about growing up in a time of civil war but a formative period for his artistic development when he fell in love with cinema and theatre. He wanted Belfast to become his Cinema Paradiso. He wanted the synthesis of his memories of Belfast in 1968 – the conflict, the drama, the grazed knees, the first kisses and events propelling his journey towards the stage and the screen – to seep through the characters and ooze from the screen.
But then… there’s Belfast Branagh remembers – confusingly composed of heart-warming images of his parents and grandparents spliced together with flashes of violence and despair unfolding with no regard for his understanding of these matters at the time – and there’s Belfast Branagh can restore using his own talent as a filmmaker. And, as Germans like to say, da liegt der Hund begraben. This is where the problem is because, like it or not, Kenneth Branagh isn’t known for his mastery of cinematic pizazz or for giving his movies an edge Belfast would most definitely benefit from. On the contrary, having earned his stripes in the world of theatre, he has never really abandoned the comfort zone provided by the artifice of a stage production, which is why (a) so many of his movies don’t feel organically cinematic and (b) why he tends to choose his projects so that he could feel he’s on the stage while in fact he is on the set. Why do you think he is so keen on re-adapting Agatha Christie novels nod that he needs to take a break from Shakespeare? Because they are timely or somehow tethered to what he wants to say about the world right now? Are they stories in need of telling? Of course not. What he likes more – and he has every right to do so – is the seductive idea of directing competent ensembles, overseeing big scenes with long and memorable soliloquys and embodying timeless characters like Hamlet or Hercule Poirot.
Sadly, making Belfast work requires a slightly different touch and it really shows. It honestly isn’t enough to employ monochromatic cinematography, bespeckle it with tactical elements of colour and rely on the innate relatability of the material. Not every coming-of-age story set against a historical backdrop is bound to work and Belfast as directed by Branagh unfortunately proves that. Granted, it’s easy to become mesmerized by the film’s perceived whimsy. It is even possible to talk yourself into believing that there’s some artistic depth to this exercise in meshing pop cultural references to High Noon with elements of historical fiction surrounding the emergence of The Troubles or that it is at least fundamentally endearing to listen to Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench’s characters dispense life-coaching advice to Buddy (Jude Hill), a stand-in for young Branagh. It is equally possible to find that Jamie Dornan and Caitriona Balfe are inherently likeable as Pa and Ma and that there’s something sweet and uplifting about this whole process of watching a movie populated with these characters busying themselves re-enacting Branagh’s rose-tinted memories of his mum whooping his backside when she found out he stole a candy bar from a shop or his dad as he courageously stood up to the local paramilitary boss.
But then, you will quickly realize that there’s something wrong with this picture because all these elements – that in isolation look perfectly fine and acceptable – add up to something that comes across as inauthentic. And at least from where I am sitting it is important to ask why that is. Is it because Kenneth Branagh’s memories are not gritty or edgy enough to sweep me off my feet? Perhaps, but I would like to believe it is not the case. After all, there is something endearing about this canonical story about a young boy learning to understand the world around him and striving to retain his youthful optics (aided by his entire family) despite grave circumstances. What I believe is in operation here is Branagh’s own perspective on filmmaking as a process, which is more theatrical than cinematic in nature. The film as a result persists behind a perspex screen of theatrical artifice, as though the filmmaker feared or straight-up refused to allow the viewer to invade the story. After all, this is (for the most part) common practice in the theatrical setting where it is not only allowed but customarily encouraged for the performer to occupy a completely different reality than the viewer. The language may be elevated, certain licences can be dispensed to engage the audience’s imagination and allowances are made to make sure that both the actor on the stage and their comfortable seats to inhabit a new, shared universe of the play being acted out.
And while there are plenty of circumstances where this approach translates well into the cinematic format, it felt to me that this story did not benefit from this treatment whatsoever, or that Branagh’s touch lacked that ‘x-factor’ to remove the divide between the viewer and the screen and allow them to believe they are within a tactile world of Branagh’s memories, not a collage of clichés. By no means do I want to denigrate this effort and dismiss it wholesale as a regrettable experience because it certainly has something to it. However, what I do want to point out is that Branagh as a film director perhaps doesn’t have the optics or innate gut feeling to know how to season this story so that it would elevate the ingredients used to prepare it instead of overpowering them. At the most fundamental level I feel that Belfast is an interestingly conceptualized fusion of inspirations, historical facts bent and projected upon by the incredible superpowers of the human mind, and almost completely ruined by too much sweetness.
An inexperienced cook will often add sugar to a tomato-based sauce to cut the tartness of tomatoes. An experienced cook, on the other hand, will know that addition of sugar is not needed at all provided the sauce is simmered for long enough for the vegetables to break down. It seems that Belfast is an example of such a tomato sauce prepared by someone who wasn’t confident the ingredients alone would make the dish taste the way they intended and seasoned it just in case the simple act of simmering for a prescribed amount of time would not be enough. Therefore, Belfast is an over-seasoned but conceptually interesting attempt at a coming-of-age story that tries to become a fusion spin on Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso but fails because people who put it together didn’t quite have the toolbox to imbue this story with artistic authenticity it so desperately needed to stand out the way it most assuredly deserved.