Why does Belfast, Kenneth Branagh’s quasi-autobiography featuring songs by Van Morrison, feel so soulless? The Morrison songs are slotted into Branagh’s remembrance of his childhood without particular relevance to the 1969 setting or even the emotional circumstances of a particular scene. Branagh starts with color travelogue footage of modern-day Belfast, Ireland, then shifts to black and white for his period story, the same way hack directors used to tint past scenes amber, imitating The Godfather, Part II. Both stunts signal Branagh’s lack of imagination — and worse, his superficiality.
The film’s focus on Buddy (big-eyed, broad-headed, blond Jude Hill as nine-year-old little Kenneth) ranks with Hollywood’s cutest, most obnoxious child-actor exploitation. Buddy’s naïveté insults anyone who doesn’t overindulge memories of his own youth. This blank slate, by which Branagh claims his own nostalgic ignorance, is a child without native intelligence, like the movie he anchors.
Buddy’s banal innocence falsifies everything Belfast shows about “the Troubles,” the conflict between Catholics and Protestants that turned neighbors into enemies and neighborhoods into combat zones. That fracture correlates to Buddy’s parents, Pa (archetypal Jamie Dornan) and Ma (actressy Caitriona Balfe), whose marriage is unsettled by the father’s gambling and monthly commute and the mother’s loneliness. Branagh sentimentalizes our awareness of adulthood when the young marrieds are contrasted with Buddy’s grandparents, Pop (Ciarán Hinds) and Granny (Judi Dench), two cranky yet fond elders.
All this claptrap offends the romantic ethnicity being peddled, especially the tenor of Irish heritage that Branagh’s remote style misrepresents in nearly every scene. Memory, conveyed by an unperceptive, mechanically flowing camera, seems disconnected from culture. Morrison’s great emotive tunes come from a streaming playlist, not from the heart. There’s a shocking moment when a drunken matron singing “Danny Boy” amuses the street crowd with her full-throated brio, then she disappears. Branagh never tries for such authenticity again.
Belfast’s blarney is borrowed from Branagh’s betters. Buddy’s fright after a hellfire sermon rips off Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man — ha! The religious clash concerning “civil rights and civil war” goes unspecified, except as Buddy’s school friend misinterprets it (a Hollywood ploy that avoids offending anyone and thus offends history). That painful, damnable stand-off should be crucial to Branagh’s recall. Pa ably rebuffs a militant’s threat. (“Protestant! You’re a trumped-up gangster and always was!”) But the argument over ethics, ethnicity, and manhood feels gimmicky; Branagh reduces it to trite metaphor, using clips from High Noon and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance on TV. (We hear High Noon’s theme song “Do Not Forsake Me, Oh, My Darling,” in which Hollywood fake lore became real lore, but not this time.)
Even the quiddities of marriage seem artificial when Hinds and Dench, racing toward Oscar nominations, slow-dance to “How to Handle a Woman” from Camelot, yet Branagh doesn’t indicate what Irishman Richard Harris’s then-recent film version might have meant to homefolk.
How did Branagh ever embark on his mediocre version of Henry V (1989)? In Belfast, he seems so culturally obtuse that he wastes the magnificent “Carrickfergus,” a song I thought impossible to not feel. Belfast doesn’t come close to relaying personal experiences in the way that enhanced Terence Davies’s The Long Day Closes, John Boorman’s Hope and Glory, and Jim Sheridan’s In America, just to name three Irish-ethnic movies where the directors’ own lives prompted deep responses universally. Branagh’s insensitive method — bizarre Tom Hooper–style angles like the immense close-up of Buddy that does not relate to the joy of Morrison’s “Jackie Wilson Said” — nullifies any personal cultural specifics. It’s as embarrassing as Obama’s recently conflating Scotland, Ireland, and Shakespeare.
Branagh breaks my rule that filmmakers should never include clips of films they cannot equal or surpass. This malfeasance happens when Buddy and his family go to the movies to see Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Branagh cannot match that film’s minor delight. It’s not until Pa and Ma rekindle their passion at a disco near the end that these characters — heretofore mismatched — display inner poetry, but Branagh botches that, too. The scene is a funeral celebration edited so tackily that even as the characters reunite, you can feel cinema itself collapsing.
Branagh’s shallow regard of Irish history cheapens its art heritage, first by misappropriating Van Morrison, creator of the transcendent Astral Weeks among other Irish pop landmarks. The rest of Belfast manufactures nostalgia in the mode of Harvey Weinstein in his Oscar-manipulating heyday. Branagh misses the Proustian rush of Terence Davies’s The Long Day Closes. This calls for apologies, not Oscars.