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Belfast review – Kenneth Branagh’s bizarrely generic autobiographical drama

A feeble script proves an insurmountable structural flaw in this handsome but inert account of a Northern Irish childhood

For plenty of British audiences, Kenneth Branagh may as well have been born on stage at the Globe Theatre and educated at Hogwarts, such is his synonymity with the Shakespearean and the fantastical. With Belfast, though, he seeks to remind us exactly where he came from, spinning an autobiographical yarn of a nine-year-old boy in 1969 Northern Ireland, forced to reconsider his world as The Troubles kick off and turn his neighbourhood into a paranoid war zone. It’s a rich and deeply personal premise, but one that is robbed of its emotional power by a consistently clunky script that keeps the family at its heart from ever feeling convincingly real.

In the role of “Young Branagh” is Buddy (adorable child actor Jude Hill), a kid much loved in the local community, a community that is swiftly torn asunder when a Protestant mob storms into the streets and burns Catholic families out of their homes, leaving Buddy and his Protestant family shaken and disillusioned. This isn’t just a Troubles story, though: Branagh making sure to save room for Buddy’s lower-stakes concerns, like his formative trips to the movies and his somewhat requited love for the smartest girl in his class, as well as a gentle drama of marital strife between his mum (Caitriona Balfe) and dad (Jamie Dornan).

Despite the cast sharing an easy charm, they’re saddled with such dead-weight dialogue that no one really makes an impression, with the exception of Ciaran Hinds as Buddy’s granddad, who is the best part of the film by a vast distance. Even Judi Dench is muted as Buddy’s caring granny, given too little to do outside of withering remarks from a distance. It’s Balfe who suffers most though, unable to breathe life into some atrocious monologues – she’s also gifted with the film’s single worst, most inexplicable scene that absolutely betrays the little we already know about her character.

A lot of dialogue has the cadence of a joke, but very little of it is actually funny, and so the whole enterprise just goes limp a while before the credits roll. It’s a real shame, Branagh the writer fatally letting down Branagh the director, who still manages some decent work. You really get the sense of the geography of Buddy’s local streets – it’s a cliché to call a film’s setting its own character, but in this case it’s got more depth to it than most of the humans – and there are some impressive set-pieces. From a whirlwind of an early riot to some lovely dance sequences between Balfe and Dornan, Branagh makes better use of movement than dialogue, all lensed in crisply pretty monochrome.

The high these moments leave you with fades all too quickly, and it’s not long before you’re again listening to some plodding exposition or a feeble gag. With such pedestrian writing, the texture and insights that make the best personal stories feel so simultaneously specific and universal are absent, leaving behind only a generic waste of potential.

Belfast was screened as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2021. It is released in UK cinemas on 21 January.

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