Belfast (Review)

It’s hard to feel charitable towards Belfast when it’s such obvious awards bait. Clearly positioned as ‘Branagh’s Roma’, this autobiographically inspired portrait of Belfast in the late ’60s feels every inch a pale imitation. It says a lot about a film when its most resonant moment is the final moment, one that only hits at all because of extra-textual details: our knowledge of the history around these characters and what the final plot point means. This is also telling as so much of the film aims at emotion, with dramatic events happening each scene and never really impacting.

It is tempting to fall back on Belfast’s heart being in the right place. It is a look back at a very complicated time that doesn’t really point fingers and focuses on the familial, on the human, rather than the political. This doesn’t work though, partly because it never achieves these aims (the whole thing rings too false to be a convincing human portrait) and because the entire film has the feel of ‘no politics at the dinner table, please’. It is the cinema of avoidance, where The Troubles exists as a backdrop and is addressed only in generalisations and platitudes. It is a reductive approach and feels disingenuous.

Of course, you can make films in which a serious backdrop is used as a device for the foreground. Films like Pan’s Labyrinth expertly do what Belfast thinks it does: promoting a child’s eye view of the world and thusly only showing the harshness of the world in broad strokes. Though, that film feels deeply aware of the entire context, even if its protagonist does not. In Belfast, a child’s eye view is not as deftly evoked, neither is reality, and the film just seems simplistic. A lot of this comes down to direction: overall, Branagh approaches the production like a play. The sets have the feel of stage setups and the acting has a theatricality to it. It is a dialogue first production full of vignetted conversations. The cinematic language has a surface level artistry but does very little. It’s a collection of ‘interesting’ shots, prioritising atypical angles and framing, but none of it speaks cinematically. A lot of it also just doesn’t look very nice; interesting and atypical don’t mean attractive. The camera work is also constricting, with inconsistent usage of establishing shots and too many narrow perspectives. It isn’t in line with any character, and often doesn’t seem to be communicating much, and rarely feels like it is in the right place, or a place of purpose. The black and white aesthetic also doesn’t appeal. The contrast doesn’t look quite right, with a washed out falsity that further hinders an already artificial feeling film.

So much of this artifice is down to the scripting. It is an episodic retelling of a childhood (in which the cinematography could be equated to looking through a photobook, trawling through memories… But that doesn’t make it good, nor effective) and one that just feels overly incidental. We jump from moment to moment and it all rests on an attachment to characters. Unfortunately, this isn’t evoked. The central child is annoying, written as a rose-tinged remembrance of a former self, full of ‘wisdom from the mouths of babes’ moments. Characters talk in theatrical platitudes and there’s no semblance of naturalism. If this was more based around being a portrait of a time and place, this wouldn’t harm the piece (as much). However, time and place is evoked vaguely and, as mentioned before, in a reductive fashion. All is built around foregrounding the family and the family are not that interesting. Branagh may be pulling from memory and the film may chronicle an important moment in history, but that doesn’t mean he’s gleaned anything cinematic or interesting from this.

The whole thing is just fine. Some moments work, more don’t. The Van Morrison music is annoyingly good, because Van Morrison is an arse (and one does have to question the ethics of commissioning Morrison at this point). Occasionally a composition hits, mostly the visual language is subpar but the piece as a whole is so purposefully inoffensive. And this is perhaps the biggest issue. It is all a supreme push for warm, fuzzy relevance with a melancholic centre. Something to cosy up with with your family. All sentiments antithetical to the setting of the film, and indicative of how it engages (or more appropriately, doesn’t) with all of this. There is an interesting film here about how a child’s perspective is ignorant to the specificities of conflict, and what that can mean for an audience. This is not that film. This is an awards campaign.

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