Set on the streets of Northern Ireland in the late-1960s, Belfast is full of fond memories that are surface deep. Buddy (Jude Hill) is a young blond hair Protestant living a life of fantasy amid the turmoil of The Troubles. A few Catholics live on his street—namely, a young girl he fancies—so there are some instances of rioting and looting, but not so much that it gets in the way of weekends at the movies, spending time talking to Granny (Judi Dench) and Pop (Ciarán Hinds), studying maths, watching the moon landing, and wondering which is the right road to take: The straight and narrow or the long and winding. That one he picks up from church on Sunday—delivered with all the hellfire and brimstone the pastor can conjure, but none of the salvation. The lesson sticks in Buddy’s mind, but the answer doesn’t.
Belfast is loaded with this kind of myth-making. Buddy loves the movies, gravitating toward westerns. From them, he gleans that there are white hats in this world and there are black hats. He just doesn’t know how to tell them apart. He figures his father wears the white one, but that’s about it.
Written and directed by Kenneth Branagh, Belfast is an idyllic look at an un-idyllic time with little hindsight and less insight. The westerns Branagh draws on, The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance and High Noon, both contain contradictions and criticisms that fit nicely within The Troubles and Buddy’s budding acknowledgment of the world around him. But none of it seems to find its way into Branagh’s story. Instead, Branagh settles for parody.
What does work is the cinematography from Haris Zambarloukos: Shot almost entirely in sumptuous black and white. The stone streets and brick buildings of Belfast have a texture only black and white could capture. Faces are presented in detailed chiaroscuro and occasionally have the look of a Renaissance painting. Others have the look of myth itself. Take the scene where Buddy watches his father stand up to the neighborhood bully (Colin Morgan). The POV is from behind and below Pa (Jamie Dornan)—his shoulders broad across the stormy sky, his hands on his hips in defiance. He looks ten feet tall. In the window, Ma (Caitríona Balfe) watches, her face lit like Rembrandt in a pool of dark shadow. Pa might as well be Gary Cooper, for all Buddy figures, with Ma standing in for Grace Kelly.
It’s a pretty good scene, but it’s but one scene. The rest feel flat, rote, familiar, and uninterested in exploring anything deeper than the world is magical for a child, miserable for everyone else.
Written and directed by Kenneth Branagh
Produced by Laura Berwick, Kenneth Branagh, Becca Kovacik, Tamar Thomas
Starring: Jude Hill, Caitríona Balfe, Jamie Dornan, Judi Dench, Ciarán Hinds, Colin Morgan
Focus Features, Rated PG-13, Running time 98 minutes, Opens Nov. 12, 2021.