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Kenneth Branagh's autobiographical 'Belfast' never quite finds its point of view

The family (Caitríona Balfe, Jamie Dornan, Judi Dench, Jude Hill and Lewis McAskie) goes to the movies in <em>Belfast</em>.
Rob Youngson
Focus Features
The family (Caitríona Balfe, Jamie Dornan, Judi Dench, Jude Hill and Lewis McAskie) goes to the movies in Belfast.

It wasFederico Felliniwho once said that "All art is autobiographical; the pearl is the oyster's autobiography." He knew of what he spoke, given his fondness for self-portraiture in films like 8 1/2 and especially Amarcord, his 1973 classic about his own childhood. Cinema history is full of such great memory pieces, like François Truffaut's The 400 Blows, John Boorman's Hope and Glory and Terence Davies' The Long Day Closes, all made by directors looking back with aching tenderness at their early years.

Kenneth Branagh's Belfast has already courted such comparisons since its warm reception at festivals earlier this fall. You can see why: This is a rare dive into personal territory from a filmmaker known for directing and often starring in adaptations of Shakespeare and Agatha Christie. And Branagh's working-class childhood was certainly more dramatic than most: He was just a young boy when the Troubles began in Northern Ireland and his home city of Belfast was plunged into sectarian violence.

Jude Hill is Branagh's younger stand-in, Buddy, who's playing outside when fighting breaks out in the street and Molotov cocktails start flying. Branagh stages this sequence with explosive intensity, but for most of Belfast, the Troubles hover in the background, a source of anxiety as well as confusion.

Buddy doesn't understand why he and his Protestant family are suddenly supposed to hate their Catholic neighbors, and his decent, tolerant-minded parents don't get it, either. Caitríona Balfe plays his mother, who's done most of the work raising Buddy and his older brother. Jamie Dornan is Buddy's frequently absent father, who works in England as a skilled laborer.

During one of his father's trips back home, Buddy eavesdrops as his parents argue about their finances and future. His pa wants them all to leave Belfast and its Troubles behind, but his ma can't imagine living anywhere else. (It doesn't spoil anything to note that Branagh and his family did end up moving to England.)

Belfast is a fond farewell to Branagh's childhood. He wants to capture something of the city's scrappy, resilient spirit, mainly by cramming the soundtrack with classic songs plus one original tune by the Belfast legend Van Morrison. There's a nice balance of sweet and tart in Buddy's relationships with his ailing grandfather and sharp-tongued grandmother, nicely played by Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench. There's also a cute subplot involving Buddy's crush on a classmate and his efforts to improve his grades and get her attention.

Although Branagh shot the movie in black and white, he sometimes lets a little color burst into the frame — like when Buddy and his family go to the pictures and watch late '60s hits like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. In showing us these brightly colored images, Branagh foreshadows his own career as a filmmaker and pays tribute to the magic of the movies. These are lovely moments, but they also made me wish that Belfast itself were a more moving, transporting experience. I'm still trying to figure out why a story that's clearly so personal to its maker somehow wound up feeling so muted in the telling.

It may have something to do with the pandemic, which made it difficult for the crew to shoot in the real Belfast, forcing them to build a 1960s street set on an airport runway. You can feel the lack of grit and texture in the production design, and also in the overly polished sheen of the images. But the problems with Belfast aren't just technical. There's an emotional restraint to this movie that should be admirable in theory: Branagh at least doesn't try to jerk sentimental tears. If anything, he's too guarded, as if he were reluctant to probe the past too deeply.

There's also something a little studied about the way Branagh relies on older movies to tell his family's story. At one point, he uses images from the classic western High Noon to underscore the struggle of Buddy's father when a menacing Protestant gang leader tries to recruit him for battle. It's a clever but secondhand reference in a movie that never quite finds its own point of view. All art may be autobiographical, but Belfast is a reminder that not all autobiography is necessarily art.

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Justin Chang
Justin Chang is a film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Fresh Air, and a regular contributor to KPCC's FilmWeek. He previously served as chief film critic and editor of film reviews for Variety.