It makes sense Kenneth Branagh was, at one point, a fixture of the indie scene. His style layers metaphor on top of scenes to seal their emotional gravitas. But Branagh’s otherwise lack of visual style leaves him in an aesthetic No Man’s Land that is more like an amalgamation of everyone’s land. He pulls threads and yarns from all over to aggressively, obviously weaving cinematographic prestige and filmmaking ‘excellence’ into his interpretation of grandeur.
Branagh suggests such in “Belfast,” a black-and-white, nostalgic, semi-autobiographical extravaganza. The film uses a massive pull from the studios’ styles (was Branagh ever unsatisfied with “Thor”?) and throws in some small-time filmmaking. One shot puts 9-year-old protagonist Buddy (Jude Hill) and his Pa (Jamie Dornan) in a Dutch angle as they meander through a grove. And there are frames after frames of characters in standoffs, their faces so meticulously positioned between the poles in a bus or the irons of a fence that we must marvel — gosh, would you look at that filmmaking.
From Branagh: Oscar, please! He’s pandering for the prize with a film that covers the events of about 53 years ago — if we can carbon-date using “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” — the entertainment Buddy and his family spend a peaceful evening ogling. There’s also Branagh’s competing subject, the outbreak of the Troubles (“Belfast” begins in August 1968), the violence that consumed Northern Ireland through the end of the 20th century.
Branagh’s hometown, Belfast, was a center spot of the conflict, but the director avoids its all-consuming zeal. The violence structures his film, but it often becomes background chatter to Branagh’s nostalgia trip. In that vein, “Belfast” opens with what’s essentially a tourism advertisement: Sweeping shots of modern-day Belfast, its blue-collar shipping industry, its red-brick rowhouses, its crisp blue sky.
Then it cuts to a wall and sweeps up and over into 1968, where Buddy spars with his friends a la wooden sword and trash can lid shield, the latter of which will soon be used by his Ma (Caitriona Balfe) for very real defense. In just a few moments, the perfectly grooved concrete of this block will be tarnished by a car fire, the soccer game replaced by volleys of shattered glass and Molotov cocktails. Later on, Buddy’s joy will be zapped when his parents discuss a move to England, leaving behind his friends, a new girlfriend and the loving grandparents he adores, Granny (Judi Dench) and Pop (Ciarán Hinds).
It’s a feel-good movie where everything’s sunny, except when it isn’t and when the taxman comes calling. It’ll get your seat neighbor of a certain age snapping along to the Van Morrison tunes that pack the soundtrack; though in “Belfast,” there’s something to say about separating art from artist, but neither Branagh nor his film can quite spit it out.
Instead, “Belfast” engorges itself in all the matte polish of a ’60s candy counter — there is one of these in the film, complete with white signage outside — with all the corresponding eggshell white flatness in its leads, none of whom do the heavy-lifting “Belfast” needs to burst into its own. Jamie Dornan knows how to deliver dialogue, especially the superfluous dialogue he’s asked to put up in this talky film. It’s got the welcomed benefit of cutting down on the time between his lines when he dulls and switches off like an animatronic on standby.
In that way, “Belfast” is poignantly theatrical, maintaining a prescient ability to keep away from politics, tossing the topic off the screen like a hot potato. Yet, despite the bare trickle of politics, the movie is quick to point out the arbitrariness of a fight over religions. “Belfast” is a disarmer and charmer, where Protestants date Catholics and somehow life goes on.