“Belfast” opens with a color shot of the Northern Ireland port city, the camera rising above the shipyards and eventually over a wall, peeking into a neighborhood street where kids play outside while the adults mingle. As we travel over this wall, we move from the present day to 1969, from color to black-and-white. These sorts of visual tricks can be found all throughout writer/director Kenneth Branagh’s film, a deeply personal project semi-based on his own childhood and memories of the city where he was born and raised. Memory is a tricky thing; it’s funny, the people, places, events, and objects from childhood we remember, versus the ones that fade into obscurity. The black-and-white cinematography in “Belfast” helps cement its status as a memory film, and there are some beautiful, crisp close-ups of the cast, but the deep shadows sometimes appear like something more out of a noir than a comedy/drama detailing a young boy’s coming of age. The occasional muddiness of the visuals carries over into the narrative, which presents moments good and bad in a family’s life over the course of one year with the fleetingness of snapshots with little depth.
Jude Hill (in his feature film debut) plays Buddy, the younger son of a working class Protestant family residing in one of Belfast’s Catholic neighborhoods. The film begins with a scene of unexpected violence: as Buddy plays in the streets with his friends, wielding a child-sized sword and shield, a crowd of rioters storm into the neighborhood, throwing rocks at people and homes and lighting cars on fire. This was the beginning of the escalation of a conflict known as the Troubles, which pitted Belfast’s Catholic and Protestant residents against each other, predominantly over the issue of whether or not Northern Ireland should remain a part of the United Kingdom. But after this terrifying opening scene, from which we see the riot through Buddy’s eyes—standing, facing the armed men with his little shield, the camera circling around his shocked and scared face just before his mother (Caitríona Balfe) scoops him up and hurries him inside—the Troubles remain largely on the periphery of the narrative, glimpses of soldiers and barricades in the street and snippets of news reports serving as the primary reminder of the conflict. That, and the fact that Buddy’s father (Jamie Dornan) is caught up with some bad characters and has gotten into some vaguely bad financial troubles, all of which prompt him to consider moving his family out of Belfast.
“Belfast” is depicts the memories of someone who was at the time a child, so it is perhaps appropriate that the film doesn’t get too mired in the politics of the Troubles. At the same time, Branagh brings up a lot of issues both personal to and larger than Buddy’s family, but doesn’t resolve a lot of them in a satisfactory manner. We get fragments of the adult conflicts (Ma is throwing dishes at Pa over their tax troubles one minute, and then they are dancing and appear so in love the next), while the more pressing troubles for Buddy (like achieving good grades in maths so he can move to the seat next to the smart girl he likes in class) take precedence. Technically, it feels like the right way to structure a story told from a little boy’s perspective, but in practice, it comes off as scattered, giving the audience less to grasp on to emotionally unless, perhaps, they too can relate strongly to Branagh’s specific memories.
That’s not to say that “Belfast” is entirely cold. A scene toward the end of the film hit me hard, and a lot of the film’s best and most moving moments come courtesy of Ciarán Hinds, who plays Buddy’s grandfather. Pop has a great sense of humor, expresses deep affection for his wife (played by Judi Dench, who accomplishes so much with so little screen time) and an upbeat attitude about life that balances out the serious problems his son and daughter-in-law are facing, and when he speaks to Buddy, he always speaks to him on equal terms. Balfe is the other half of the film’s heart, the steadfast matriarch raising her boys largely alone, as her husband must frequently travel to London for work. And Hill proves to be a brilliant young performer, bringing so much purity to every scene, whether he’s watching his parents argue from a distance, trying to impress the girl in his class, getting unwittingly swept up with a street gang, or watching a film in the movie theater, staring awestruck up at the screen, a hint of Branagh’s early inspiration to become a filmmaker. We catch glimpses of late-60s toys, music (the film features music by Van Morrison, another Belfast native), and media that would have been influential to a young boy in that time and place throughout the movie. Some of it is escapist entertainment ranging from “Star Trek” and “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” others broadcasts of western films like “High Noon” and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” both of whose themes centering around duty and standing up for what’s right serve as additional commentary on the events unfolding in Buddy’s life. Branagh employs a similar visual gimmick in the movie theater scenes, with shots of Buddy and his family in the audience remaining in black-and-white as the color footage of a movie like “One Million Years B.C.” pops on screen. There’s some magic in it—and I’m easier swayed by nostalgic portraits of movie-going experiences than most people—but like the opening scene, it’s hard not to see as much more than Branagh piling on all the tricks he can think of. Branagh is more than an accomplished filmmaker, and while “Belfast” in some ways sees him at the top of his craft, it never reaches the emotional heights that such a personal story ought to.
“Belfast” is now playing in theaters. Runtime: 98 minutes. Rated PG-13.