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Belfast (2021): Belfast is so Bel-Slow it’s going in Bel-Reverse

(L to R) Judi Dench as "Granny", Jude Hill as "Buddy" and Ciarán Hinds as "Pop" in director Kenneth Branagh's BELFAST, a Focus Features release. Credit : Rob Youngson / Focus Features
Kenneth Branagh and 'Belfast's' Crew Discuss The Film's Crafts - Variety
‘Belfast’. Pic: Variety

Of all directors, Kenneth Branagh knows the highs and lows of cinema. His films range from superbly received to garnering a meagre 8% on Rotten Tomatoes (Artemis Fowl, 2020). In his new release, Belfast (2021), he has managed to split opinion entirely. The film did remarkably well at film festivals, including the People’s Choice Award at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival, and was praised for being a feel-good indie hit (and is now up for a BAFTA for Best Film). But was subsequently dubbed by critics as “a film about the Troubles that, when you dig into it, isn’t so much about the Troubles at all”. They’re both right: Belfast is a tale of two halves. On the one hand, it’s a slow-burning ode to the director’s home turf. On the other hand, it is a film that is so slow, that it almost has no substance.

Belfast follows a working class Protestant family of four experiencing the opening Riots that spark the Troubles. The story is shown through the eyes of nine-year-old Buddy (Jude Hill) as his parents (Jamie Dornan and Catríona Balfe) make the difficult decision whether to move to England. The problem with showing a world of conflict through a child’s eyes is that by its very nature, it omits anything politically complex. Unfortunately for Branagh, the storyline of young people living in the Troubles was recently achieved very successfully by Lisa McGee’s Derry Girls (2018). A coming-of-age comedy, the series itself does not claim to foreground political conflict in the same way Belfast does. The film being named after the city centralises the film around politics as opposed to the individual. However, the film itself doesn’t do much to elaborate on this except provide a villainous thug character in Colin Morgan’s character (a far cry from his innocent role as the titular character in Merlin [2008-2012], how the mighty fall…). The lack of character development is an ongoing issue with the film. All the characters are well acted, but most of them lack substance. The parents don’t really have clear characteristics beside (spoiler!) one being a homebody and one wanting to leave (*insert poor joke about Dornan’s habit for going for roles involving shades of grey*). The best characters by far are ‘Granny’ (Judi Dench) and ‘Pops’ (Ciarán Hinds). Immaculately played and beautifully scripted, they embody everything that loving / chastising grandparents should. Their familiarity with Buddy and desire to spoil him in their humble way makes every scene they feature in heart-warming to watch, and add moments of lightness and comedy to a serious film. Dench ends the film magnificently. I’d like a film just about the two of them.

Obviously, the most poignant point about production to be addressed is the cinematography: the vast majority of Belfast is shot in black and white. The only moments shot in colour are the opening sequence of establishing shots, and any movie or play shown onscreen – perhaps to glimpse into Buddy’s future, mirroring Branagh’s own success as a filmmaker. Cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos commented that it was chosen to suit Branagh’s minimalistic style as it “filters out any unnecessary noise”. I can understand all that, the artistic simplicity, the clean shots, the drawn focus. From the point of view of a cinematographer, it’s very effective. But here’s the thing: shooting in black and white just looks a bit crap. It might be used to emulate memories, but memories aren’t captured best in black and white: they’re warm and fuzzy and messy and magical. Unless it’s for a very good aesthetic reason, shooting in black and white generally isn’t a good idea. There’s a reason that colour is now the norm. Black and white compliments the occasional closeup of Judy Dench in her gloriousness (see below), but generally it does not enhance a film that might otherwise have been coloured to create a 60’s mis-en-scene.

Empire Magazine on Twitter: "Kenneth Branagh's new film #Belfast tells an  Irish coming-of-age story, starring Jamie Dornan, Caitríona Balfe, and Judi  Dench. Watch the trailer here: https://t.co/ir3T6YJLt4  https://t.co/WBCxjZcCaU" / Twitter
Judi Dench in ‘Belfast’. Pic: Empire Magazine on Twitter

Having said this, the actual shots themselves are interesting and beautiful. Seldom does Branagh opt for generic shots, instead opting for very static shots when not in action-packed moments. Often he chose tableaux-like, frozen expositional shots to give the audience context. He uses low fixed cameras from Buddy’s height, rather than handheld or Steadicams, and avoids the usual shot-reverse-shot. His conversations often switch frames between subjects instead of over-the-shoulder shots, or use simple static two-shots (where both characters conversing are in frame at once). It feels Tom Hooper-esque or even Wes Anderson style at moments, adding lightness that complements dialogue. The choice of shots is artistic and interesting and for the vast majority, very effective. The only issue with this is sometimes both subjects are in frame for a conversation, but at a slightly different focal length. This meant that sometimes a character with dialogue was out of focus but not far enough to be prominently so, giving a slightly fuzzy, messy feeling.

Another interesting aspect of the film is the editing, which is not something that is often noticeable. Branagh and editor Úna Ní Dhonghaíle have edited these unusual shots into an equally unusual format. Often, conversations that could continue into a longer scene are cut off, leaving scenes on a cliffhanger. This is a clever way of achieving the ‘show-don’t-tell’ mantra that all screenwriters abide by, and I can see why it is up for a BAFTA for Original Screenplay. The trouble with this is that every scene is very short – indeed, the whole film is only 98 minutes – and every storyline feels a little rushed. Sometimes a question left hanging in the air is powerful; when used too often, it is frustrating. There are lots of little components to Belfast, but the side effect is that there is no storyline that you feel truly invested in. Perhaps this is why the characters are difficult to warm to: you don’t actually get much time with each.

I came out of Belfast with a pleasant feeling of enjoyment. I liked the film. It was enjoyable, with moments of light and shade (both literally and figuratively). I didn’t love the film. I didn’t warm to it. The simple fact of Belfast is that it moves so slowly that it is almost about nothing. Where languidly paced films such as Call Me By Your Name (2017, dir. Luca Guadagnino) and Ladybird (2017, dir. Greta Gerwig) focus on intimate storylines and beautiful, peaceful visuals, Branagh’s cinematic choices leave Belfast’s audience wanting a bit more oomph. Perhaps for once, a filmmaker has gone too personal, and alienated his audience somewhat. Or maybe it just deserved to be a bit longer, to spend more time on each plot line and character until it became a fully crafted tale. Maybe the whole thing should have just been about Judi Dench. Or maybe it just shouldn’t be in black and white.

By Becca Brown