Kenneth Branagh's Oscar Contender 'Belfast' Is Surface-Level Nostalgia

The film is being pegged as an Oscar frontrunner, but can it win?

Focus Features
Focus Features

Kenneth Branagh winks to the audience throughout his new directorial effort Belfast, the story of a Protestant family very similar to his own trying to make the decision whether to leave their home of Belfast as rioting erupts during The Troubles. It's also an origin story for Branagh himself. His stand-in Buddy (Jude Hill, who projects rosy cheeks even though the movie is in black and white) is a wee lad captivated by cinema, his eyes lighting up upon the sight of Raquel Welch and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. There's a brief shot where he's reading a Thor comic book, a nod to the fact that Branagh will go on to direct Thor.

If that self reference seems a little bit precious, it's in the spirit of the rest of Belfast, which, despite its subject matter, aims for the warm and fuzzy above all else. It's a movie that knows it is a crowd pleaser, an honor it has already won by being named the Toronto International Film Festival People's Choice, usually a bellwether of potential Oscar success. Thus, Belfast comes into theaters this weekend as the presumptive frontrunner, a burden for a messy movie with a personal spin and big ambition.

Branagh opens on a series of color shots of present-day Belfast as Van Morrison, the Northern Irish rocker whose work makes up much of the soundtrack, croons. As the camera moves over a wall, Branagh cuts to 1969 and black and white takes over. The crisp, monochromatic color scheme puts Belfast in direct conversation with Roma, another film named after a locale that explores a director's childhood. It does seem that Branagh took heavy inspiration from Alfonso Cuarón's portrait of his youth, in a way that does Belfast no favors. Whereas in Roma, Cuarón examined his experiences through the distance of adulthood, the prism of class, and the viewpoint of the domestic worker that tended to his family, Branagh is squarely focused on his own perspective.

For a movie that uses The Troubles in Ireland as the basis for its narrative, you'd be hard pressed to find a real explanation for why the violence was unfolding. Branagh has boiled it down to a simple Protestants versus Catholics dichotomy, a child's eye view certainly, but one that does a disservice to its audience, as well as the place Branagh is trying to honor.

In the opening moments, Buddy is playing happily on his block when violence erupts, turning his playground into a barricade. While his parents (Caitriona Balfe and Jamie Dornan) fret over what to do, Buddy remains blissfully consumed with more minute concerns, including whether he'll get the attention of the blonde girl at school, receiving advice on the matter from his grandparents (Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench). Meanwhile, his Pa (Dornan) is away in England on business frequently, leaving his Ma (Balfe) struggling at home with tax problems and the fear that her boys will be hurt in the chaos. Despite her concerns, Ma is resistant to leave Belfast out of loyalty to her homeland, and a notion that things can maybe go back to the way they used to be when their street was a sanctuary.

Despite the affection with which Branagh clearly approaches his hometown, the question of whether or not to leave never has the intended dramatic tension, despite the strong performances from Balfe and Dornan, who smolder at each other when they aren't bickering. The family at the center of the story is clearly luckier than so many others nearby. They're afforded an exit path, and it's clear they are going to take it even when the script presents them waffling.

Branagh tries to pair his pint-sized protagonist's moments of joy—his trips to the cinema, the moment his gorgeous parents dance to "Everlasting Love" together—with the harsh realities of living in a society coming apart. But in its carefully choreographed nostalgia, it is all too twinkly eyed to make much of an impact.

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.