'I Know Nothing Else But..': Belfast (Branagh,2022) Review
Well. What can I say? I didn’t hate, I didn’t love it. Indifference should let me forget about it, and to some degree I do. I am under no obligation to like a film. No one is… obviously. But I certainly felt like I should have liked this. Without the sway of critics lauding it, audiences loving it, the awards institutions hailing it and the cast and crew practically inviting me to embrace it unconditionally, there would still have been a bitter taste of disappointment to follow my viewing. The subject was a real draw for me, the shift in tone Kenneth Branagh as a director another. What was it that didn’t work?
A semi-autobiographical story, it follows a young boy, Buddy, and his working-class family in 1960’s Belfast during the tumultuous turn of events that incited ‘The Troubles’ in Northern Ireland. His father works overseas and his mother raises him and his older brother with the aid of his paternal grandparents. Through highs and lows and the runaway imagination of our lead, we see Buddy flourish through political turmoil, the trials of first love and the contradictions of Catholic vs. Protestant conflict that provides some of the stories finer lines (there are some real zingers throughout, though not all land). It tends to not take itself too seriously on many of these topics, for the best most of the time. Ultimately, it becomes harder to swallow as the narrative closes.
There are probably few noteworthy films exploring ‘The Troubles’, for a conflict of such complexity and disquiet, fewer still that take a coming-of-age perspective. Yet I feel I have seen this executed better. Branagh’s story is full of heart, that can’t be doubted but it’s in equal amounts of sentimentalism that can be too sweet to taste. He penned the script; it’s based on his own childhood and is kind, playful and gleeful about its subject matter. My Dad grew up in Derry, Northern Ireland during this period and there were lot's of lovely details that I recognised from his own stories, it was even genuinely moving when I could connect with the world. Furthermore, the parts I admired in his script were generally the harder-hitting moments; taking not so much neutrality to the glaring political unrest that shaped his childhood and many other Northern Irish memories of the sixties and seventies, but a gentle and omnipotent stance, one which shows a side of the conflict rarely depicted on screen of solidarity. That, in some ways, is the boldest the film manages to be.
It seems that there is a great divide between those that found a selection of scenes shamelessly cheesy, or take the stance that those same scenes were impossible-to-smile-at moments. I am of the party in the former, I could see the benefit of such scenes and from the perspective of a young boy, it’s his journey after all, the realm of imagination and trying to capture those incredible pivotal moments that shape us were integral to building up his world. And isn’t it nice to see a family, though troubled, functioning as a far healthier unit than what we are used to seeing? Can I think of any way it could have felt less syrupy? Maybe I’m unused to grounded-ness in family stories. Anyway, romantic serenades and immersive theatre visits were perhaps too theatrical for me.
Somehow, I never felt I was truly there. Was it the set pieces, the dialogue, the characters? Despite following the story though a youthful perspective, encountering some relatable and more pinnacle historical moments, I should have found myself invested. And yet, for much of it I felt just like I was watching a film. Branagh predominantly shoots this in black and white, plays with use of colour in certain scenes yet isn’t quite so convincing in his use of this style. Much of the time, I thought I could see the same film in colour and not notice. Instead the choice is very evident in that it’s trying to go unnoticed yet becoming glaringly unnecessary. I found narrative and directional tricks tripping me up and taking me out of the moment.
Some of the cast are phenomenal. They make some of the harder to swallow moments utterly heart-wrenching, in fact I am convinced it is the specific work of Caitríona Balfe, Judi Dench and Ciarán Hinds that has blown people away. Balfe deserved her nominations; if there was anything I took away from my experience, is that she is highly-underrated in her Outlander role and a finer actress than she is given credit for. Dench and Hinds were phenomenal, deeply moving and funny. The three of them get some of the best witticisms, clearly rooted in truth and the moments that ring authentically for me.
This is kind of experimental for him yet in the confines of his usual directional choices and styles I feel he fares better. His adaptations of Shakespeare have been dramatic, over-the-top even, but that is the charm. There are only two ways to handle the master after all, strip it back and ground it in realism or go all out. That scene in the fountain in Much Ado About Nothing is ridiculous, but I love it all the more; the music, the performances, the mood it just fits. But beyond theatrical adaptations, his style has sat less and less comfortably. With his recent Poirot adaptations, I can see him lending himself to the spectacle of Christie’s works but that have felt rather throw-away. So it’s interesting to see him step out of this. Yet, was it wholly executed well? I think much of Branagh’s talents lie in adaption over original works.
I love to cry, and laugh. I love to be moved and get all gooey over the mushiest of things, this blog s proof that I am more mess than substance. However, I don’t claim that these always make great films. This film is for many, just what they needed, a little lift me up in such a depressing time. I know that enjoyment is entirely dependent on mood and taste. I am critiquing a film, I am sharing my taste in cinema rather than fact of what is good and bad. No one should feel bad for liking or disliking a film (as long as those motives are not harmful or offensive then I must label one a fool), so it is I that feels bad for not liking a film. Why is that? Is it my contrarian nature that is whipping its goofy head in confused objection or is it a valve in my soppy heart that malfunctioned during the watching of this film. No, I think it’s just that it didn’t work for me. Not how Branagh intended anyway. Less of (the Belfast born) Van Morrison would not have hurt either.
(I saw this two weeks ago... just thought I should expose myself for the lazy Trainspotter I am.)