Memories warm the soul and make us who we are, but they don’t always make for great cinema.
Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast does its best to pay homage to his hometown and the people and places that made him, but his film often serves his memories at the expense of weaving together a thoroughly compelling story. Even so, you'd have a black heart to deny just how effectively the director's reverence hits when it all comes together, as he salutes his family and community’s resolve during the Troubles, which rocked Northern Ireland during Branagh's youth and indeed long afterward.
It feels a bit as though Branagh saw Alfonso Cuarón's masterful Roma — 2018's black-and-white semiautobiographical family drama — and decided he wanted to do the very same thing. Cuarón’s film, which earned the filmmaker a Best Director Oscar, swirled brilliant and at times deeply painful memories together with the story of a beloved family maid. Roma felt structured; it wasn’t just about a collection of memories as much as it was the study of a character inspired by someone vital to Cuarón's upbringing. Branagh isn't quite so efficient with Belfast, as the early happenings of the film hop around too much between the agony of the Troubles and the joys of Branagh’s youth. When he blends the two together, he strikes gold, and we can feel the pain of seeing neighbors and neighborhoods thrown into chaos over the conflict that brewed between the Protestants and the Catholics.
Branagh can’t be faulted for how sincere his film is; it’s necessary to dig deep and make a movie like this one as earnest as possible. He wants the audience to feel what it was like to watch the Troubles first-hand. His family’s efforts to withstand the difficult times are depicted through the eyes of a child, and he nailed it in casting Jude Hill as Buddy (Branagh’s avatar), a sprightly young chap who gives the film its spark. Caitríona Balfe and Jamie Dornan turn in endearing performances as Buddy’s folks, as does Dame Judi Dench as his grandmother. But it’s Ciarán Hinds who gives the film the most warmth as Buddy’s adoring grandfather, who helps the boy contextualize what’s going on around him with a wry smile and sage wisdom.
In the end, the scene that hits hardest is one in which Balfe’s Ma angrily forces Buddy and a cousin, who have just ignorantly helped loot a grocery store with a crowd of rioters, to go back to the store and return what they’ve stolen mid-riot. It’s the film’s best fusion of recollection and storytelling, and it lets us feel exactly what Branagh wants us to feel about his family — that they were good, moral people who sacrificed greatly for him in a community he still holds dear. At its very best, Belfast gives memories like those stirring context.