‘Belfast’ Review: A Personal Story Without Much to Set It Apart

You know what hey say: when in doubt, shoot it in black and white.

“Belfast” is the passion project of director Kenneth Branagh, loosely based on his own experiences growing up in 1960s Northern Ireland. The film stars Caitríona Balfe, Judi Dench, Jamie Dornan, Ciarán Hinds, Colin Morgan, and Jude Hill, and follows a family that gets caught in the middle of the Catholic-Protestant Troubles conflict.

The easy comparison here is to Alfonso Cuarón’s 2018 film “Roma.” Not only because it is shot in black-and-white, but it’s a small-scale feature from a director who has become associated with big budget blockbusters, set in their home country. Like “Roma,” “Belfast” features good performances and a personal touch from its director, however it fails to ever build up any momentum or sense of purpose.

Jamie Dornan received, rightfully so, critical bashing for his role in the “Fifty Shades” films. But much like his co-star Dakota Johnson, Dornan has managed to turn his career around and prove that with an actually halfway decent script he can be a charming and talented actor (he’s delightful in “Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar”). Here, while not running with his shirt off and singing to seagulls, Dornan suppresses his frustration as a father who is struggling to balance working to support his family and being home to protect them from the rising gang wars. The performance is pretty subtle, not the showy type that will win the TV awards, but I was really impressed by him here. Caitríona Balfe is also effective as his wife, including one monologue towards the end of the film.

Ciarán Hinds (himself an actual Belfast native) plays Dornan’s father, and is arguably the emotional crutch for most of the runtime. He offers Dornan’s son Buddy (Jude Hill) advice on girls, school, and what’s really important in life, and my audience seemed to really appreciate his remarks on love and marriage. I could see (and hope he gets) award talk in the coming months.

The issue is, outside the performances, the film lacks any true identity or sense of motion. Yes it is told from the perspective of a child, so all true character flaws and conflicts are softened or altogether avoided, but so is “Jojo Rabbit,” and that film (mostly) pulls no punches. Scenes abruptly end, sometimes seemingly at random, and various plot points are present simply to add a bit of contrived dramatic heft.

The cinematography is pretty crisp in its black-and-white, with some color added whenever the characters attend the theater. But the B&W style isn’t hypnotic like “The Lighthouse” or “Roma,” or to pay homage to the cinema of old like “Mank” or “The Artist;” in hindsight can’t really see why Branagh chose to shoot his film like this, other than to try and add some faux gravitas.

“Belfast” is not a bad movie, and I’m sure it’ll be a crowd-pleaser and easy choice for voters through awards season. But given Branagh’s established track record as a director, and the trio of performances we’re given here, the end product should have been far more engaging and memorable. Branagh wanted so badly to depict this story on-screen, he forgot to make it clear why it was he was sharing it in the first place.

Critics Rating: 5/10

Focus Features

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