Belfast is a movie with its heart in the right place. It carries good messages about sectarianism in the context of Northern Ireland, persecution based on faith, and the moral challenges community members are forced to confront when living with a young family in something akin to a civil war. Especially, the challenging question of whether to stay or go. It is set in the late 1960s, during The Troubles in Belfast, and shot in black & white.
It reminds me of Nomadland (2020) in its combination of being a good-hearted story that is also… quite a bad movie in ways, with deep flaws in storytelling and technically. It is a movie I want to like, and it is genuinely heart-touching in moments. That makes it somewhat unenjoyable to criticise with the same scathing relish as something like, say, Halloween Kills (2021) — big budget studio trash = fair game in my book.
I am not familiar with much of Kenneth Branagh’s work, but I enjoyed his heavily-fictionalised biopic of Shakespeare, All is True (2018). This movie is very different, both stylistically, in tone and subject, and in its technical and storytelling qualities.
The acting is for the most part good, with Jamie Dornan (as “Pa”) and Caitriona Balfe (as “Ma”) performing well the roles of parents caught in the crossfire of The Troubles and trying to navigate to the best solution for their family, across generations. Jude Hill plays Buddy, the young boy who is the protagonist through which we see his life through the lens of a child. He does brilliantly in a very demanding role, though in a few places it feels like he is misdirected.
The photography is subpar — amateurish, but not in a grungie indie way that has its own appeal. There are strange focal length choices, a dull black & white, overuse of drone footage, and landscape shots that are varied in how well they work compositionally and fit with the rest of the scenes. The lighting is also off in places. The story is what matters most in a movie, but the photography is patchy in a way that stands out. The editing is flat out bad, with shots that either cut abruptly or linger pointlessly.
The sound is good, with no muddy dialogue — and that does go some way to making up for the visual flaws.
The story is effective at illustrating the different kinds of characters that contribute positive and negative energies to a community in crisis. Those that exploit, those that give in to the pressure to “commit” to a side, and those that try to quietly but resolutely stand up to it, walking the tightrope of being forced into escalation and keeping their family from getting mixed up in things while trying to protect them. It illustrates the emotional complexity of choosing whether to leave or stay in a place where you have family, friends, and strong bonds with the community. The stark terror of violence exploding in the middle of residential neighbourhoods from the perspective of a young child is also effectively conveyed.
The script is contrived in places. A key scene involving a confrontation between armed police and looters is shabbily assembled, stretching the believability of events to an extreme. In other places, dialogue feels very “written” and comes across as stilted. It is obvious from the start where the plot is taking us, and the purpose characters are meant to serve. It is not storytelling with dramatic subtlety or nuance.
The movie also feels surprisingly dull for stretches. When this is combined with good-natured family conversations, it can be comforting in short spells — in the places you can go along with it. The intention seems to be to show the civility that exists, and is being interrupted, inside an effective war zone. It leans too heavily into this, too often for my taste, making for an unbalanced tone.
There are some memorable moments, and the message and moral spirit of the film is beyond criticism. As well as Nomadland (2020), I am also reminded of Skin (2018), a movie about neo-nazis in the US I was looking forward to, but found its execution leaving a lot to be desired.
When a film is made on an important societal topic, I want it to be really great. I stubbornly hold it to high standards. Belfast is far from great filmmaking. Heart does go a long way — so for those with an interest, I wouldn’t recommend against seeing this. It could, for example, make for an instructive film to go see with your family.
James Lanternman writes movie reviews, fiction, essays, and moonlit thoughts. Reach him at [email protected].
Previously… ‘All Around’