Belfast Synopsis: Buddy (Jude Hill) is a young boy on the cusp of adolescence, whose life is filled with familial love, childhood hijinks, and a blossoming romance. Yet, with his beloved hometown caught up in increasing turmoil, his family faces a momentous choice: hope the conflict will pass or leave everything they know behind for a new life.
Oscar season is finally upon us! After an award’s season dominated by straight-to-streaming titles, 2021 brings an exciting blend of eclectic new features (King Richard and Spencer) and long-delayed holdovers from last year (Nightmare Alley and The Last Duel). It’s an exciting time for arthouse cinema, but it’s also a season driven by overreactions and post-release fatigue when it comes to the critical Best Picture frontrunners.
One of this year’s early favorites is writer/director Kenneth Brannagh’s latest feature, Belfast. Crafted from Brannagh’s warm nostalgic memories amidst a city undergoing civil division, Belfast boasts the right ingredients for an awards crowdpleaser. Despite the overwhelming praise, I found Belfast to be a befuddling misfire that fumbles viable material at nearly every turn.
Where is the disconnect from mainstream sentiments? I attribute much of Belfast’s falterings to Brannagh, a well-intended studio-craftsman who has settled on the likes of Thor and the dreadful Artemis Fowl after crafting Shakespearian dramas. The director’s sincere ambitions lie vastly over his head with this personal, coming-of-age tale.
Working with Cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos, the duo struggles to craft a feature with genuine artistic merits. Much of the runtime displays thoughtless execution, often incorporating clunky blocking and inconsistent framing that relays character beats and themes with clumsy obviousness. Several visual decisions lack attention to detail, whether the duo is bizarrely framing perspective shots without relaying an actual perspective or tripping scenes up through awkward post-production ADR audio. Drowned out with a myriad of played-out song choices and an artless use of black-and-white photography, Belfast wears the arthouse veneer without understanding how to execute techniques properly.
Branagh’s script is similarly listless. Juxtaposing affectionate memories of Jude’s youth with the combative civil divide occurring in his hometown has genuine potential, but Branagh never gets the delicate balance right. The coming-of-age bits lack the specificity to liven the familiar ground treaded, while the intermixing of harsher undertones never finds a sensible balance between the two. For a narrative with such varying tonalities, it’s bewildering to see neither the film’s warmth nor melancholy connect on a meaningful level.
Branagh’s handling of vital political subtext also feels laughably overwrought, relying upon standard narrative and cinematic devices to articulate the setting’s intense religious divide. Ruminations on cultural divide couldn’t feel more timely, but reducing the conflict to background window dressing rather than delving into its overarching effects morphs the situation into a manipulative device. A dreadful third-act standoff takes the subtext to even more ridiculous lows, with Branagh lacking the meaningful insights to say anything purposeful on his subject matter.
My gripes with Belfast are so frustrating because the movie demonstrates impressive strengths. Stars Ciaran Hinds and Jamie Doran exude charisma and warmth as Jude’s paternal figures, while Caitriona Balfe displays the intense passion and undying strength of his beloved mother. There are sparks where the cast and narrative potential shine through the rough, although the flashes serve as an unfortunate reminder of what Belfast could have been in better hands.
Belfast radiates with adoration for its setting and characters, but that goodwill doesn’t equate to a well-crafted film. It will be interesting to see how reactions to this film evolve as it gains Oscar momentum.